The Slow-Burning Rise of Debacle Fest and Records
Sam Melancon Builds an Underground-Music Empire in Seattle
Sam Melancon's West Seattle home office affords him a spectacular vista—a long view of downtown's skyline, the Cascades, and Mount Baker, all cast in a particularly romantic glow during
a recent Spring evening's orange-pink sunset. Based in the High Point neighborhood, Melancon runs the edgy underground micro-indie label Debacle and its namesake festival from comfy middle-class surroundings at odds with experimental/noise's natural habitat of gritty urban squalor. To those endeavors, too, he applies a long view toward fostering a thriving scene, what he calls a "slow-burn" approach.
The articulate 29-year-old data analyst doesn't really care if you think his upwardly mobile status is a paradox. He's married, is planning to have kids, owns two cats, and works for Spring Creek Group, one of the biggest social-media marketing firms in the world. He also happens to combine the skills of local music catalysts Good to Die Records' Nik Christofferson (efficient provider of high-quality recordings) and Decibel Festival's Sean Horton (expert curatorial sense of local and international talent) into one bearded, bespectacled, NFL-lineman-sized body.
Melancon spent his childhood in Seattle and Issaquah and went to Chrysalis alternative school in Woodinville. He later attended Portland State University—more to follow a girlfriend than to study. But his lack of scholarly diligence there hasn't hurt him in "the real world."
"This is pompous, but I learn tools really quick," Melancon says earlier while driving his Mazda5 hatchback south on I-5. "I never knew how to do any of my jobs before I did them."
A musical obsessive with eclectic taste, the teenage Melancon loved hardcore, krautrock, hiphop, IDM, math rock, and Steve Reich's minimalist classic Music for 18 Musicians. He entered the music biz with the Sardonic Sounds label, which he ran with Malia Alexander from 2001 to 2004. Their post-hardcore imprint "fell apart so bad," providing the handle for Melancon's current label. Debacle operates in the vein of crucial indies like Important, Thrill Jockey, and Holy Mountain, all of which champion several challenging, highbrow genres very well and reflect the refined sensibilities of one individual.
"[Debacle] was very small the first few years," Melancon says while seated before two large desktops in his well-ordered office, which houses his label's voluminous catalog, his CD and book collections (including a Dischord box and the Krautrock: Cosmic Rock and Its Legacy tome), his Korg DS-10, and some dumbbells. "I've become a big fan of the slow burn. Each year feels a little bigger than the year before."
Debacle put out 20 releases in 2011 and typically manufactures 100 copies for each, although a run of 250 Expo 70 discs sold out in the label's early days. Debacle needs to sell only 20 to earn back its outlay. Melancon hand prints and burns all of the CD-Rs, and the artistic/design quality of the non-jewel-cased releases is phenomenal. Debacle plans to start issuing vinyl this spring with a 12-inch by local dark-drone specialists Dull Knife. Although early on it established a reputation as a noise imprint, Debacle has diversified into morbid disco (Crystal Hell Pool), gnomic post-rock impressionism (Zac Nelson, LA Lungs), ambient techno (STARCIRCLEANATOMY), John Fahey–esque folk (Daniel Bachman), cosmic-synth sorcery (Megabats, Melancon's duo with Riley Scott), and malevolent post-hiphop (Rainbow Lorikeet).
Demian Johnston, who designs artwork and records for Debacle under his own name and as Blsphm, praises Melancon's taste. "Within the noise/drone/weirdo world of Seattle, the DIY aesthetic can be pretty slapdash, but Sam is able to make releases quickly that look like he cares. He gives the artists complete creative control. As far as being an organizer, he wears his stress well and is able to make Josephine shows with 10 acts still be over before the bars close."
Melancon has been channeling that organizational acumen into Debacle Fest, now in its fifth year. The first Debacle event at Black Lodge doubled as Melancon's bachelor party. He remembers it as a milestone of community building in the normally fragmented underground-music environment.
"It ended with a group jam. It was a noise-heavy night. I have pictures from that night, and all these people who never smile are playing and smiling. The vibe was super communal."
Debacle Fest used to happen in August or September, but there was too much competition with other fests (in 2011, Debacle competed against Escalator Fest and Decibel), so Melancon moved it to May this year. "I'm very inclusive," Melancon says. "I don't want our scene to be exclusive."
Debacle 2012 takes place over three nights and features nearly 30 artists. Melancon intends for each act to play 25-minute sets, with headliners getting slightly more time. ("I want concentrated bursts of awesomeness.") The lineup is stacked with excellent local and national acts, including No UFO's, Mark McGuire, Sean McCann, Eternal Tapestry, Brain Fruit, and Panabrite.
The criterion for booking the Debacle Fest is simple: It's all artists Melancon likes. "I don't ever want anyone in Debacle Fest who I don't like [but] who I think would draw. Demian Johnston helps me a lot; he knows everybody. Jason Anderson knows [the ambient/drone scene] very well. I use his connections a lot. But a lot of it is just casting a net very quickly and very wide of both hopefuls and locals," Melancon says as he points to a spreadsheet on his computer that's full of festival participants.
Although he's a serious businessman and festival director, Melancon exudes a fan's fervor. He points to the flyer for Saturday's bill and gushes, "The people who come to this night are going to lose their mind. Eternal Tapestry, Operative, and King Tears Bat Trip at the end, that chunk will rip people's face open. But most people don't know who King Tears Bat Trip are or understand how friggin' amazing Operative is.
"King Tears Bat Trip are a local group made up of people from the Racer Sessions crowd: four drummers, Neil Welch on sax, and Luke Bergman from Thousands on guitar. They got really into that Haitian voodoo drumming, trying to figure out those crazy rhythms. It's like Albert Ayler melodies being repeated on this trancey loop with four or five of the best drummers in the country. [KTBT are] going to lead us out into the night, essentially. It's a ritualistic experience. Operative is [former Stranger music intern] Scott Goodwin from Bonus's super-funky minimal-techno project. That one-two punch of Operative and King Tears is going to kill people."
While Melancon has grand ambitions and admires Decibel's popularity, he can't see his event getting that big; maybe in five years he'll take on sponsors and hire a staff. For now, Debacle is a one-dude operation.
"If Debacle were in Chicago or New York, it would be gigantic," Melancon says. "I am fighting against Seattle a bit. I'm hoping that this year I cross that chasm and it becomes so not just the people in the know know. I always want to go one step bigger. If it feels lesser, I should stop."
A realist at heart, Melancon is cautiously optimistic about Seattle's role as an innovative-music incubator. "I think everything's getting a little better, but I'm waiting for it all to click. You feel like all these trains are rushing around and maybe eventually they'll all come together. There's this weird buzz about Seattle right now; it sounds like we're on the upswing, so maybe we're going to get an influx of kids and, not to be too cutthroat about it, I think we could really take advantage of it. The next two years is the time to really try hard if you're in Seattle."