How Sacred Bones Became the Underground’s Most Influential Record Label

Sacred Bones’ Jenny Hval circa 2016’s unrealized film script-turned-album, Blood Bitch. Facebook

There’s one record label we seem to feature here at Observer Music more than any other, not by design or due to any branded partnership agreement, but because their artists continue to fascinate us, creating a sonic space to spend time in and lending themselves to unique conversations. The more weird music fans you talk to, the more Sacred Bones Records comes up.

Jenny Hval gifted us with her thoughts on space and intimacy up in Hudson, then blew our minds again ahead of last year’s deeply affecting Blood Bitch. Marissa Nadler paralyzed us with her self-propelled, haunted beauty and a true outsider approach to both her music and her art. Moon Duo learned us about finding supernatural powers out in nature.

Sacred Bones has dealt duality and devotion to New York’s music community for 10 years, and on their anniversary, they’re taking the time to celebrate with two of what will soon be several showcases—Saturday’s Red Bull Music Academy Festival New York show at their original office space at Greenpoint Terminal Warehouse, and another in June as part of Northside Festival’s programming—featuring a full slate of their sonically diverse artists, including the aforementioned Jenny Hval, Marissa Nadler, filmmaker Jim Jarmusch playing with Moon Duo, Zola Jesus, The Men, Psychic Ills, Uniform, Rose McDowall, and Genesis Breyer P-Orridge with Edley ODowd featuring Blanck Mass.

When genre falls off the bone, the eclectic nature of the label’s roster might best be explained by its founder, Caleb Braaten, who grew up working at his friend’s parents’ record store, Twist and Shout, in Denver. There Braaten learned about fostering a collector’s mentality, how quality transcended genre description, and the allure of a label with its own strong visual iconography, a la jazz labels like Impulse! and Blue Note Records, or Manchester’s storied Factory Records. Art director David Correll designs the majority of the label’s consistently elegant, understated cover art, along with their instantly recognizable logo of a triangle surrounded by the Ouroboros, or snake eating its tail, in the top left corner.

But elsewhere, too, every aspect about Sacred Bones’ success is contrarian to how today’s economy traditionally functions. They split profits with their artists 50/50, and refer to those they sign as family without a hint of cynicism. Their sales are largely physical, a feat remarkable in our age of instant technological gratification. And most importantly, they consciously work to stay small, despite collaborating with some huge artists (their holy auteur triangle of David Lynch, John Carpenter and Jim Jarmusch) and signing a distribution deal with Secretly Group that sends their music to all corners of the globe.

Braaten’s partner in crime, Taylor Brode, came on full time in 2009 after sharing her knowledge of marketing and project management expertise with him, and together they’ve grown Sacred Bones into the rarest of labels, one that stays small and curatorial while still managing to have a wide reach.

Ahead of their legacy showcases, The Observer caught up with Brode and Braaten to discuss what makes Sacred Bones a family, why the label is as much about the light as it is the darkness, and just how their success wound up bearing an uncanny resemblance to a snake eating its tail.

I picture you both in—

Taylor: Coffins?

I was thinking of ceremonial robes, surrounded by candles.

Caleb: That’s not too far off.

Taylor: It’s funny, because if you were in our office right now and looked at my desk, it would be surrounded by ceremonial robes and candles.

[Caleb laughs]

Of course you can’t light the candles that close to the robes, or you have a fire hazard.

Taylor: I don’t know, dude, I do pretty well with the candle/robe ratio. Stevie Nicks taught me well. [Laughs]

Caleb Braaten and Taylor Brode. Taylor Brode

I know you also did a little press five years in to the label. What effect does thinking about these legacy shows have on your perspective of your own history? What’s different about your appreciation for the variety of things, the way that things have gone? 

Caleb: It’s very different from where it started, obviously. I think the mile markers are nice to be able to reflect. Five years isn’t that different from 10 years—we’ve grown quite a bit as a label, as an identity and as people—but from year zero to year five was completely different. By year five we had enough of a thing going that we could have a celebration, you know what I mean? People cared enough. Year zero we didn’t even think we would make that mile marker. Ten years is strange, because it feels like it can’t be that long, but at the same time, boy does it feel like it’s been a long time.

[Both laugh]

“A recommendation from a human being behind a counter is gonna go so much further than what’s on your ‘Discover Weekly.’ You’re gonna take this person’s recommendation, buy the record and actually listen to the music. You’re not gonna scroll through 10 seconds of each song.”—Caleb Braaten

The whole economy of how people consume music has changed, and Brooklyn’s been at the nexus of that, for better or worse. 

Caleb: Absolutely.

But to your credit, you guys have really maintained your ethos and all that. So many labels pimp themselves out, turn themselves into branded content or Apple Music playlists, and you guys have largely avoided that. Aside from these two showcases, you don’t seem to do a lot of self-deification, I guess. 

Taylor: It’s interesting, because I was helping him as a little friend angel from Chicago. I worked for Touch and Go [Records] and would give him advice, but didn’t come on until 2009. But our label has never been with the digital consumer in mind. We’re both record collectors and we both worked at record stores forever. We’re not marketing to millennials, we’re not marketing to a digital consumer, because Caleb and I are almost the same age, and we’re not millennials.

We both grew up working at record stores and we didn’t have YouTube, we didn’t have Tumblr. Everything that we accessed as punks and alternative-lifestyle kind of people was all from communities that we had to build in person, you know? And when you do that, you develop bonds with people in real life that are much more grave than if you’re just tweeting at someone or looking at a YouTube playlist.

It’s been said that when the music industry crashed, some of those community DIY channels were kind of usurped by these digital publicity firms and cottage industries, that narratives were put in front of kids through media channels quicker than you could go out to a show and actually meet people.

Taylor: Yeah, that’s something that we…obviously we’re on social media, we’re on Spotify, we’re on all those platforms, so we’re accessible to younger people that can’t come to a show in New York or wherever. But my background is in marketing and distribution from a physical place. I learned to do marketing and distribution before sponsored ads and shit.

Well Touch and Go in their heyday was really good at that, right?

Taylor: Touch and Go didn’t have a website until they were 20 years old, and that’s how I started for them, making their website. I think because Caleb came at it from an organic place, because we’re a little bit older and we know how we want to be talked to on social media, the shape of it is my voice. We have Brad and a few other people who help out on socials, but I want to be able to have direct and honest conversations with our consumers, because they’re not consumers, they’re people.

And they’re people that we’d probably get along with most of the time, who respect us and respect our artists. We respect them. So the whole commodification of buy this record, consumer this…when we say “consume this,” we mean “eat your own tail in a flame of fire.” The way that Caleb and I consume is a highly curated and ethically-thought-through thing.

Sacred Bones’ logo adorns almost all of their covers with these two signature, esoteric symbols. Sacred Bones Records

Funny you mentioned eating your own tail, because I was gonna ask about the Ouroboros on your logo. And what about that triangle? 

Taylor: Man, what about that triangle, huh? Shit!

Caleb: Exactly. Sure is a triangle, isn’t it?

Taylor: Sure is a fuckin’ triangle!

[Caleb laughs]

Taylor: I think I got more into specific aspects of religion when I was younger, but Caleb and I both are. Neither of us are religious, but we’re both very spiritual, and in almost every religion, the same numbers keep coming up earlier, trinities a lot.

Caleb: The logo is really meant to be something that is up for interpretation. It’s an esoteric symbol that holds whatever meaning you put on it.

Taylor: The triangle as an esoteric symbol is the three-pointed thing, not just the father, son and holy ghost. In sacred geometry, a triangle with a tip pointing up just means “fire.” You can interpret it however you want. It’s definitely an element, whether fire, water, earth or air, depending on how you twist the triangle and align it.

A lot of those old esoteric sciences are less about whether they’re provable sciences and more about the context of the people who practice them, and interpret them. We could say that about your music, too.

Taylor: That’s all of religion. Religion and spirituality are about a feeling.

Caleb: Our religion is music, and our churches are record stores, and that’s the difference. That’s why a recommendation from a human being behind a counter is gonna go so much further than what’s on your “Discover Weekly.” You’re gonna take this person’s recommendation, buy the record, and actually listen to the music. You’re not gonna scroll through 10 seconds of each song.

Taylor: Yeah, and on that note, an album format is really important to us, too. We’re not a singles/digital label. I mean we do put out singles, but 95 percent of the time it’s attached to a full-length album.

” ‘Goth’ is a dirty word, as far as I’m concerned.”—Caleb Braaten

You’re a whole-album label.

Taylor: Yeah! Caleb and I spent a lot of time as A&R people, sequencing the records with our bands, you know? And the bands of ours that are open to that, which is most of them, it’s a really magical process to do that with them. Because you end up taking their story and telling it through our eyes, through our timeline, and what makes sense to our hearts.

The word “experience” has kind of been hijacked and monetized by the music industry. And I feel like you guys take that word in its most literal meaning, then put all the experience into the music. Somebody like Jenny Hval‘s music lends itself to be explained through some of the high concepts or provocative lyrics she writes, but it’s harder to codify in a one-sheet what it feels like to actually sit with her music and listen to it. Same with Marissa Nadler. Caleb, I know you get slapped with the “goth” label a lot, but I’m more interested in the place where these seemingly disparate genres that the bands on your roster flirt with all intersect. Does that connect with “goth” at all?

Caleb: “Goth” is a dirty word, as far as I’m concerned.

Taylor: “Goth” was a word that Hot Topic invented, I think.

Caleb: Yeah, I mean, we definitely dabble in the dark side of things. No one would deny that. But I think we lean more towards the cinematic side of things. It’s less dramatic and theatrical than “goth,” but it’s all about the details. If you had to put it under an umbrella, which a lot of people like to do, that’s the umbrella they wanna put it under.

Taylor: For me, personally, this year our tenure has been more about light and lightness—learning to work through some pain and move on, forward, up, and not have this darkness in you—that’s been my deal this year.

We’ve been through so much tragedy together, Caleb and I, and individually. Our bands have, too—we’re really a group of artists who have suffered. That pain that we’ve all shared, that we can all work through together, we can all laugh at at the end, too. The five year felt like they were more about darkness or a “goth” vibe, but this actually feels like the coming of the light, this one. It’s like the Leonard Cohen song [“Anthem”], “There is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.”


I’m a big Leonard Cohen fan.

Taylor: We are, too.

Caleb: Huge, huge.

Taylor: That’s the thing—the light can’t get in until you go through some dark shit! You know? And if you never go through dark shit, that kinda sucks, because you’re seeing your whole life through rose-colored glasses or whatever. But it’s cool when you take those glasses off and get to put them back on again.

The Blanck Mass record you released this year kind of sums that up perfectly. It’s a messy one on purpose, but there are these little moments…

Taylor: Yeah, where it’s like the beauty or light of God shines through! I don’t mean “God” like that, but Ben [John Power] has these epiphanies in his songs that are so visceral and undeniable. Whether or not you think you like techno or not, Ben has these moments in his writing that are so crystal fucking clear. I’ve never heard anything like it. All my favorite songs in the world, that’s what they are—you hit this epiphany after this journey with it, and come out realizing something that you didn’t know when you went in—but Ben can do that with no lyrics, which is insane. You know what I mean?

For sure, and I think of Nadler again, too, because you mentioned Leonard Cohen. She seems to be able to access that place that he does, and people always ask me why I listen to his music for enjoyment when it’s such a bummer. I listen to her and hear intense beauty, and joy.

Taylor: Yeah, and seeing Marissa live…you have to see that woman play live, you just have to. Because the way that she can connect with her audience and access parts of herself, and you can see that process happening onstage, is remarkable. She’s so vulnerable when she sings, but she still goes to these shitty bars where people are yelling over her and she puts her fucking heart out there. She’s telling you these sad stories while everyone’s ordering shots and Tecates or whatever. All of the artists on our label, were’e in love with them. Caleb and I only sign bands that we’re in love with.

Maybe that answers my question about how you manage taking on both smaller and more high-profile releases. Lynch and Carpenter, obviously huge directors, and the enormity of some of the things you have hands in makes me wonder how you still keep things small.

Taylor: That was the first tour [Carpenter’s] ever done!

Caleb: It’s so crazy to be part of the John Carpenter story. We are now a part of his biography. [Laughs]

Taylor: We’re so blessed to have that man and his team in our life. They’re such pros, because they’ve been doing it for so long. John works so hard, he does more interviews than any of our bands by 2:1, and he loves it. He’d never gone on tour and we helped get to make a John Carpenter tour happen, a few actually. It’s pretty spectacular. His producer wife taped a lot of ’em, and they’re working on a documentary about it. And David Lynch and Jim Jarmusch, I mean, that’s the thing—how dark can it be if this is our job right now? [Laughs]

What’s up with the new Jarmusch EP coming out soon?

Taylor: Yeah, the SQÜRL EP is called EP 260. Jim wrote the whole press release for it but it looks like I wrote it because all I do is write about numerology and sacred geometry, and it’s all about numerology and sacred geometry. It’s all we talk about, because our five-year anniversary was in the desert on the Mayan apocalypse, which was 12/21/12, and this is our 10-year anniversary at our old office building. We were gonna do it at this graveyard, and we almost had it locked in, but the day before we were gonna announce they had to pull out. So we moved it to our old office building—a snake eating its tail. It was hilarious!

The I-Ching has always fascinated me, too. Six, seven, eight and nine have new power after reading it.

Taylor: Homie—I’m literally writing a book of this right now. And I started a book of sacred geometry timelines for the whole label, connections of people, and everyone has a birth number. So I’ve been drawing people’s sacred geometry by their birth number, and then arrow timelines connecting everyone. It’s insane—the story of our label from a numeric esoteric point of view is really, really crazy.

The poster for Sacred Bones’ 10 Year Anniversary Showcase. Red Bull Music Academy New York

You guys could embrace that in your presentational aesthetic, too, no? New venues and spaces allow for work to be presented in so many new contexts now, I know that Sacred Bones is fairly meat and potatoes—you have David Correll’s album art, you have the limited releases—but no aesthetic you’ve tried to brand, no beanies or coozies and shit.

Taylor: We’re gonna have beanies and coozies at the anniversary show. And those beer hats with the straws that go in your mouth, but the straws will be shaped like traingles. So it’s gonna be cool.

[Caleb laughs]

Taylor: Dude, you should go to The Lot Radio, this online radio station that films their sessions. We have a regular DJ show there, and I write down the setlist number, but I do it in roman numerals or some hard [Aleister] Crowley.

“Do what thou wilt..”

Caleb: Yes.

Taylor: Dude, tell me the fuck about it, you know what I mean?! We have more kids with that tattooed on their fucking body, it’s insane! When those dudes go swimming it looks like you’re reading a fucking Thoth deck, it’s hilarious. But it’s beautiful, these children found us! We’re doing the first Thee Temple ov Psychick Youth documentary, which is Genesis P-Orridge’s family [of Throbbing Gristle and Sacred Bones’ Psychic TV], who look a lot like our fucking family. A lot. We all have the same haircuts, we all wear the same thing, we’re a family. We look like it. [Laughs]

Well you still have that Sly & The Family Stone quote on your website, “It’s a family affair.” Do you still split your profits with your artists 50/50 for the most part?

Both: Yeah.

That’s a little radical in today’s economy.

Caleb: You mean “stupid”? Yeah.

Taylor: And we also sell our artists copies of their records for much closer to cost than any label I know. We’re a homie label. We wanna take care of our bands. Our goal is to get our bands to the point where they’re making enough money that they don’t have to have day jobs. And we don’t have to gouge them to do that. Are we gonna be able to run this as just a label for the rest of time and make money? No. We’re branching out a little bit.

“[W]e just became close because Jim, he’s just a dude, man.”—Caleb Braaten

But branching out with those core values intact.

Taylor: Yeah. And we’re not branching out into a publishing arm, we’re branching out organically in a comrade, socialist way. [Laughs]

It’s a good business decision, too, because if you treat the people actually making your art as family—

Taylor: They treat you the same way, you know? That’s how it’s supposed to be. Caleb and I got in a little trouble early on because we only hired family members and some of the family members were really young. That can be hard in a working relationship. But at the same time, I can’t imagine doing this with strangers that I didn’t care about, that I weren’t emotionally, intellectually, and spiritually invested in. This is our family, I love this family, I’ll die for this family. I mean, I will when the apocalypse comes on our next anniversary. [Laughs]

What’s the Jarmusch connection? He’s all over downtown, all the time, and comes up in so many of my conversations.

Taylor: He’s a punk!

Caleb: We met him through Jozef van Wissem. He’s a lute player, and we put out a record for him and Jim. They did a baroque lute and electric feedback guitar record, Jim played the guitar. That’s how we met him, and we just became close because Jim, he’s just a dude, man. He’s down, he supports the scene, he’s really true New York.

Taylor: Yeah, he’s kept it real the whole time. All of our directors have. John and David, very much on their own terms, have too. They’re not at a punk show on a Tuesday night, but they do their part and they’ve never sold out. That’s important, and that’s why we connect with them on an ethical level. We’ll pass on stuff that’s not right for us emotionally. We can’t put out records because we know they’re gonna sell a lot if we don’t love it. You start with your heart.

Sacred Bones celebrates 10 years this Saturday, May 20 as part of Red Bull Music Academy New York at Greenpoint Terminal Warehouse, and again on Saturday, June 10 as part of Northside Festival.

How Sacred Bones Became the Underground’s Most Influential Record Label