Taylor Deupree's minimalist 12k label hits the five-year mark quietly-
like everything else he does

Mike Wolf

While Taylor Deupree's new CD, Stil., represents the strongest, starkest expression of his minimalist aesthetic, his musical identity wasn't always so clearly defined. Back in 1996, he was actually feeling somewhat lost.
Then 25, the Brooklyn-based artist had released several well-received techno and ambient recordings under a variety of names for almost as many labels (as is common in the techno world). But he just wasn't satisfied. "I didn't have an identity," he says, sitting in the living room of his apartment, which is as sparsely adorned as one of his discs. "Making techno, you're always following in the footsteps of people like Jeff Mills and Richie Hawtin, and I didn't want that."

It took a sudden move toward commerciality by Deupree's frequent collaborator, Savvas Ysatis, to give him the kick he needed. "One day Savvas said, 'From now on, I'm only making tech-house [a more dance floor-friendly blend of techno and house]-that's all,' Deupree recalls. "I was upset; we'd done a lot of records together. But he was spreading himself too thin, and I felt the same way. He told me, 'Find the one thing you really like about what you do, pick one label you want to work with, and just do it.' "

Minimalism had always appealed to Deupree (and already factored into his music, to an extent), so he applied a reductive technique to his entire career. He began paring down his sound, dropped the various recording names in favor of his own and, having experienced difficulties with labels, realized that he would have to create his own. "I was burnt on playing raves," he recalls. "The crowds were getting younger and the drugs kept getting harder, and I was never into that. I wanted to do more serious listening-music and bring together all the things I found interesting-not just the music, but art and design, too. When it all came into focus is when 12k got an identity."

Over the past five years, the label (named, in true tech-geek chic, for the minimum size of a file on Deupree's hard drive) has released 21 sleekly beautiful CDs from like-minded artists around the world, with the newest being Stil. and San Francisco guitar-and-computer manipulator Christopher Willits's Folding, and the Tea. Like all 12k releases, they're packaged in slim plastic cases with architecturally inspired, immaculately printed two-color artwork. For Deupree, the presentation goes hand-in hand with the music.

"When I was a kid, I'd buy records based on a cool cover," he says. "Nine times out of ten I was right, the music was cool, too. Certain genres just have certain aesthetics." Deupree cites graphic designers Peter Saville and Vaughn Oliver-who worked in tandem with the Factory and 4AD labels respectively-as prime influences.

Alongside labels such as Raster-Noton and Staalplaat, 12k is closely associated with the musical minimalism known as micro-sound, which involves exactly what you'd expect from the name: spare arrangements of tiny, meticulously textured digital sounds, from the Dutch trio Goem's metronomic rhythms to German producer Sogar's richly melodic digital spray. But while Deupree and his label have earned respect, commercial success has proven to be a more relative concept. "The label's rep greatly outweighs its sales," he confirms, apparently untroubled by the fact. "I press 500 of every CD. Once they're gone, I'll make another 500. But I've never sold through a second 500 of anything." Like any label boss, Deupree would be happy to sell more. But he also relishes the fetishistic quality of 12k's obscurity. "Take any of the CDs and only about 500 people in the world have heard them-that makes them seem more special to those people," he says. "It's like a community."

If sales haven't increased much over 12k's history, the label's scope has. It posts a series of MP3s on its website (http://www.12k.com) called Term., which alludes to the files' temporary presence and their oppositional stance to the label's CDs. "They never see the light of day," says Deupree with comical wistfulness. "Only a FireWire cable and the inside of an iPod." In 2000, 12k added a companion label, L-ne (pronounced "line"), run by Washington, D.C.-based composer Richard Chartier. L-ne, now with 11 releases, is even more minimalist than 12k, often documenting sound-art installations in equally attractive, simpler packages.

As 12k's artistic arc has blossomed, Deupree's has too. The lovely Stil., inspired by photographer Hiroshi Sugimoto's Seascapes series, addresses Deupree's current obsessions: repetition, stillness and time. "This book was a huge [influence] on me," he says, leafing through a collection of the photos-slightly varying images of the sky and sea in perfect balance. "In the environment we live in, everyone's on deadlines and things start and stop, and then they're over. But time keeps on going."

Taylor Deupree's Stil. and Christopher Willits's Folding, and the Tea are out now.
Taylor Deupree