Anonymous Exuberance (part 2): Interview with Ken Shipley

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Some re-issues are stunning discoveries, some certainly weren’t meant to be heard. And in this arena of labels and collectors elbowing their way towards the next big find, Numero has quietly released comps flooded with what would be called “lost masterpieces”. And the packaging, the photographs they use, the people they examine, are almost equally impressive as the music itself.

The Numero Group is founder Ken Shipley, and his partners Tom Lunt and Rob Sevier. They, along with a dedicated team scour the country for forgotten music, but more than that, they uncover intimate histories of labels, cities, weirdos, regular folks, and document them with astounding respect and detail. We’re big fans and are lucky to have Mr. Shipley show us his “terribly unglamorous” operation, explaining exactly how and why, he does what he does. You get the feeling these guys would be looking for records, even if it weren’t their jobs—maybe not to this extent—but obsessed and looking nonetheless. Here’s to Numero for sharing so much music and otherwise forgotten histories.

Please introduce yourself for fans wondering who you are and what you do?
Ken Shipley, the Numero Group’s minister of information.

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Take us through a typical day at Numero headquarters, what considerations and decisions you have to make.
Doors open at 9, though typically bodies don’t cross the threshold until 10. There is no set schedule, other than that the mail needs to go out at noon and UPS comes at 5:30. Everything else in between can be shifted to earlier or later depending on its priority. 90% of what we do is terribly unglamorous. Books need to be kept, boxes get packed, purchase orders go out, just like any other workplace. Once a month we crunch hard and finish a project, and that’s generally the most interesting work. Rob and I lock our selves in our offices and write for hours, take it home, swish it around, argue, rewrite, take antacid.

How many members are on your staff?
Six.

How much of the year do you guys spend traveling, looking for records and putting these projects together?
These days not nearly as much, as most of what we do is on the phone and through the mail. We generally do a few trips a year and get a handful of things lined up on the way. In the case of Grand Bahama Goombay, we actually got Recording Tap and Outskirts Of Deep City rolling at the same time.

People must ask you about your personal record collection a lot.
We both have rooms dedicated to records at our houses, but Rob’s probably the deepest.

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How did the first release in the Eccentric Soul series come about?
I had just lost my job at Ryko Disc and wanted to start a new label. Rob and I had a mutual friend and ended up meeting in a bar. He had an idea for a compilation called Eccentric Soul; I took that idea, tinkered and came back with something bigger. The catalyst for taking it beyond the random compilation of 45s that Rob wanted to do was Bill Moss, who informed me that he had made a few dozen recordings, not just the two Rob was talking about. I thought labels would be much more interesting and could tell a nice tightly wrapped story.

What made you want to start a label in the first place?
At Ryko I had a few projects I wanted to do that never happened and ended up taking one of them with me. Meeting our other partner Tom Lunt in a grocery store while we were both unemployed didn’t hurt either. At the same time I was spending a lot of time at Sheer Magic’s soul night in Chicago, just listening and talking to other soul aficionados. The music of those nights needed to be heard, and it seemed like there wasn’t enough people trying to make that a reality.

What was the first record you found that blew you away?
Antena, though I found it for another label.

Can you tell us which are your favorite tracks off of some of these Eccentric Soul releases
Sure.

Mighty Mike?
“Loaded To The Gills”, “I’ve Got To Have You”, “Function Underground”

Prix Label?
“You Got Me (Demo)”, “Mystic”, “Wait A Minute”

What about Home Schooled?
“I’m Not Ready For Love”, “Time”, “Now That School Is Through”

And Deep City?
“Am I A Good Man”, “Someone To Fulfill My Needs”, “I am Controlled By Your Love”

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How do you hear about these records and how do you go about getting them?
The larger world of collecting is the best resource. Talking to people, listening to their mixes, bumming MP3s, and listening is the key. Finding the originals is rarely my goal as most of this stuff is impossibly rare. I collect masters these days.

How many records do you sift through before deciding on the ones that make it onto the comp?
With some compilations it seems like you’ve barely got enough! We like to find between 16-20 songs for a record, but it’s key to use only the best stuff. In the case of Twinight and Tragar we had to make a bunch of painful cuts because the material was so good.

Which was the most difficult project in the series to put together?
They’re all tough in their own way. You forget how difficult it was after you finish. But if I had to pick, I’d say Twinight because it took us two years to finish and we kept getting better stuff. The record just never wanted to end.

Which was the easiest?
Lenaburg definitely. John Dixon handed us the entire thing and all we did was color in the story.

Who gets to keep the records you guys find?
We have library in our office for all the treasure. Like Alexandria meets Ft. Knox.

Do you to listen to contemporary music ever?
There are people I like, but I don’t have as much time to listen to outside music as I’d like. It’s hard enough just listening to the stuff we’ve got on the whiteboard. That said, I enjoy the moody stylings of Cat Power and Hope Sandoval, cut and paste shit like the Avalanches or Dilla’s Donuts, and am eagerly anticipating GnR’s next album.

What would you say to someone who wants to start a label like Numero?
Now is clearly not the time. Save your money and go to business school.

So what do you envision for the label in the future?
We’re going to be the next Folkways. Wait and see.

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***Tom Lunt, left and Ken Shipley, right. Photo by Jim Newberry.

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