Wood Records was a fascinating American CD-R label that put out several bizarre and unheralded gems, nearly all of which seem to have completely disappeared from the collective consciousness. Despite accumulating a discography of at least 74 releases, only three have made it onto Discogs. And this is a label who put out compilations featuring artists like Zoogz Rift and Eugene Chadbourne.
Wood Records was started by Mark Flake, who is now an established visual artist. In a phone interview with him, I learn that his musical activities date way back.
Despite growing up in Memphis, Flake describes his early childhood as somewhat “isolated” from interesting music. “My father was very hostile to rock music, so I wasn’t allowed to listen to it, but he did have a huge drawer of old 45s. Sun Records, Buddy Holly… I was well versed in fifties rock, while all my friends were listening to Smokey Robinson.”
In high school he started diversifying his listening. “I’ve never been too crazy about the type of music you would hear on the radio, AOR music like Journey,” he says.” He started listening to 20th century Modern Classical music and free jazz artists like Ornette Coleman and Albert Ayler, then was captivated by punk rock when it arrived, parlaying that interest into curiosity about no wave and hardcore punk.
He picked up the guitar at age fourteen, fooling around and taking a few lessons. A school friend had a brother who owned records by Stravinsky, the Mothers of Invention, and then-Walter Carlos, which led to his musical boundaries expanding.
His first recordings were done around 1984 or 1985. He was living with his girlfriend at the time, and the two had listened to some tapes done by a friend of theirs. She suggested Flake might be able to record something even better, which inspired him to buy a Ross 4×4 four-track and start recording. He quickly became “obsessed.”
Flake’s first tape was CR ME DOG BAY, credited to his initials, MWF. “On my first tapes, up until I became more confident as a guitarist, I used a Casio two-second sampler,” he says, “This tape had a lot of sampling and scraping sounds. It was pretty avant-garde, like early people who did Moog work that was very noisy.” Interestingly, at this point, he was not aware of the cassette network of noise and industrial artists with whom he may have fit in.
Flake has just started archiving some of these tapes on his YouTube channel, and CR ME DOG BAY is up:
To put that tape out, and other tapes like it, he created his own Wyndham Garage label, its name a play on the new age record label, Windham Hill. He hocked those tapes at shows he did locally in Nashville, estimating he sold a total of 150 tapes total over the years. None have surfaced online, and he lost his own copies long ago.
The second tape was Big 70s Songbook, also credited to MWF. Flake tells me that this release was named after a book of sheet music he obtained. The songs themselves are freeform covers of 60s and early-70s songs played on various Casio SK 1 presets and electric guitar, with Flake’s weirdo vocals floating in and out of the picture. Flake recognizes the strong influence of the Residents (a band he still loves) and their label, Ralph Records. Kicking off with a baffling cover of “Yellow Submarine,” it moves through versions of “Stayin’ Alive,” “Cinnamon Girl,” “Young Girl,” and so on:
At this point, most of Flake’s tapes were solo MWF recordings, but he did release some music by bands that he played with. This includes Whack-A-Mole, which he calls a “punkified art jazz” duo. Flake says his bandmate was a very talented drummer and was responsible for the superior musicianship in their collaboration, though Flake wrote most of the songs, which trended to the avant-garde. On one album, Lies, Flake played acoustic guitar and his friend used electric drums. On the next, Home of Door Number, Flake played electric drums and his friend played acoustic drums.
Flake also released a tape by a prog-rocky band called Crayonfish, a trio of which Flake was part, though he says his creative contribution was minimal.
Wyndham Hill eventually petered out, and Flake started Wood Records in 1999. “I saw these other indie labels on the internet, and thought it would be a great idea to have people help each other with unusual music that would not otherwise be heard.” He launched the Wood Records website, which by most standards was fairly basic in design, filled with bright colours and liberal use of Comic Sans. But that’s part of what’s endearing about the label, along with Flake’s vivacious descriptions of his various wares. “People would ask if my website was made by a fly,” he jokes.
Around this time, Flake was living in Dodge City, Kansas, where he was teaching art at the city’s community college. “I had a nice studio in our basement there. It was a horrible, horrible place to live, though. I took a job there teaching at the community college. They fired me. They said, ‘You’re not one of us.’ The guy told me I’m the best teacher he’d seen in a classroom, I’m just not ‘one of us.’ I think it’s fairly conservative and somewhat deprived.
“I didn’t really have a hard time with the people of Dodge City. It was kind of an interesting culture there. But the weather was unpleasant. It was completely surrounded by cattle feed lots. It rains very rarely, but when it does rain, everything that’s evaporated form those feedlots comes down on the city. It’s basically like you’re walking out of your house into a cow urine and poo field.”
The first twenty-four releases in the Wood Records catalog were CD-R reissues of old Wyndham Garage tapes. The first new Wood release was therefore catalog number wd25, MWF’s 2000 B.C. It was a “suite for small midi chamber group [that] tells the sorrowful tale of Fritz Flintstein and his pals.” He tells me he had created this album while experimenting with a MIDI program he had obtained, MidiSoft. It was hard to do triplets in that program, so he didn’t bother. “It is probably the only album in existence which has no triplets in any music,” he laughs. It’s an unusual listen, verging on outsider music, like many of Wood’s releases:
Initially an outlet for Flake’s own music under the name MWF, the Wood website started to attract other artists, who sent Flake their demos in hopes of a release. “My guess is they just did a web search on where can I send my music that’s different, or something like that,” he says. “It probably only took a couple weeks for me to start getting a few emails from people asking, ‘Can I send you a disc, can I send you a cassette?'”
One mainstay of the Wood roster was a talented keyboard player who went by Lolwolf, who “was very much into prog rock and classical music, like Bach, and Gentle Giant.” Flake and Lolwolf also played together as EllenM (i.e. “L” and “M”). There are also two by-mail collaborations with experimental artists Ernesto Diaz-Infante, who had gotten in touch with Flake when he posted an ad on a musician’s resource website looking for musicians with similar interests.
“At the beginning especially, we got a lot of submissions from people who were doing more-or-less straightforward bar-band stuff, cover bands, things like that. Which of course would be completely impossible to release. Because if you’re doing Boston covers and sending them to me, that’s a big can of worms to open, not that I would want to release that anyway. After awhile, there was just something about it that attracted people that weren’t welcome elsewhere.”
Perhaps it is this that led to Wood Records’ roster of highly idiosyncratic artists, which include several remarkable finds. One was Johnny J from Sweden, who was one of the artists that sent Flake a demo. He mentions that they are still friends online. “Johnny is interesting. He seems to be a world traveler and a hardcore vegetarian.” Johnny has since become heavily into the conservative moment in Sweden.
Like many artists, all it took for Johnny J to get released was a demo. “He just sent me a disc of his material and I thought it was enjoyable. Not something I would go out and buy, mainly because of how the drums are handled. Sort of a techno-rock feel. I thought there was a market for it, and I liked Johnny personally.”
Then there was Charles Fyant, who also had sent Flake a tape. “I thought it was very sincere sounding,” Flake says. “He’s just sort of a no-BS guy. In terms of our whole aesthetic, what we look for is sincerity. Even if I don’t like it, if I feel it’s sincere, I can respect it. In the case of Charles, I actually liked his music, I enjoyed his guitar playing, and he’s a talented drummer as well. Charles and I did a collaboration as well did the Pill Poppers.”
“[Fyant] is very involved in making music. He plays in a lot of different bands in Montana. He’s very involved in his heritage, as a member of the Salish Native-American tribe.”
Then there was Knyaz Mishkin, a band from Belarus. “They just sent me some tapes,” Flake recalls. “It was a more thrash-y version of avant-garde guitar work. Kind of no wave, if Sonic Youth were angrier and less laid-back, and wanted to hurt their instruments a little bit more. That would be my take on them.”
Flake’s emphasis on sincerity is critical, because helps explain why Wood Records’ body of work is so unusual and so fascinating. The artists he releases often record unpolished music that is highly idiosyncratic in nature, and this is certainly true of Flake’s own work as MWF. I hesitate to bring up the “O” word, but in end, I ask Flake how he feels about the concept of outsider music, and how he might fit into it. “I think as far as my own music is concerned, I am self-taught which is usually called ‘naive’ and sometimes outsider, and I am often grouped with outsider musicians and composers,” he says, mentioning that he thinks he is filed under “outsider” in Jakki Di’s independently-published compendium on the topic, New Weird America: Freak Folk / Psych / Outsider Music.
“I would consider myself outsider in most of the other ways that term is used,” he reflects. “I am not really part of the world and don’t usually even consider myself part of the human race, and don’t think most of humanity would want to include me.” Careful not to generalize his own experiences, he adds, “I can’t speak for the other artists.”
Wood Records was not without an audience in its heyday. Flake tells me that the Wood Records samplers and tribute albums sold really well, and if an artist had a following, that would help bolster sales. But there were some Wood Records releases that never sold a single copy.
Flake was playing live intermittently around then, and a few live recordings found their way onto Wood, for example his 2003 album, Howling MWF.
Though Flake ran the label, he saw it is a collective effort between the artists who worked with him regularly. Some of the most successful efforts were his tribute albums, which included tributes to Phil Ochs (Poison Ochs), The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band (Noises From the Limb), Nilsson (I’ll Never Leave You), Nina Hagen (Return to the Mother), and Barnes & Barnes (Party in My Palm).
He attracted a few bigger names to these compilations. Camper Van Chadbourne, a collaboration with Eugene Chadbourne and members of Camper Van Beethoven, contributed a memorable cover of “I Kill Therefore I Am” to the Phil Ochs comp. And the Bonzo Dog Band tribute featured tracks by R. Stevie Moore, Zoogz Rift, and Casper & the Cookies. Meanwhile, the early oddball band Barnes & Barnes became aware of Flake’s tribute album as it was being put together, even asking if Flake could include band member Bill Mumy’s son, Seth Mumy, on the compilation (he ended up contributing a version of “The Inevitable Song”). Barnes & Barnes even asked Flake if he would release their next album on Wood Records, but Flake told them he didn’t have the resources to press enough CDs for their audience.
Wood’s best-selling album of all time was Saturday Night Cedar, a 2005 label sampler. “The previous sampler had sold maybe 200 copies in the whole time it had been out,” he says. He recalls releasing Saturday Night Cedar, then waking up the next morning and being shocked by the orders that had poured in. It sold its full 500-copy edition in the space of the next two or three days!
But this posed a logistical challenge. “I was living in Dodge City then, and I didn’t have a lot of close friends there, so I had to do all that myself.” While Flake prides himself on his handmade packaging, he admits that Saturday Night Cedar‘s physical copies suffered visually due to the need to produce that many copies at once.
It’s hard to know how that release ended up selling so well. Most “promotion” came courtesy of the internet, but Flake tells me that, whenever he would travel, he would leave some samplers out around different towns, and would attach Wood Records magnets to the walls of public elevators. Those magnets provided the URL and featured Wood Records slogans like “Wood is Good” and “An Invitation to the Unusual.”
One of my favourite artifacts from the Wood Records catalog is now lost to time. It was Focus, an album by a duo from Italy named LAM. “It’s kind of like a cross between Santo and Johnny and Brian Eno,” Flake summarizes. He, too, considers it one of his favourites. “They just sent us a disc out of the blue, it came in the mail. And they already had put it together, all the production and engineering work. They even had their own graphic design work. All they needed was somebody to make it available to people.” Sadly, it wasn’t a big seller.
“I’m still friends with one of them, but long-distance friends,” Flake says of the members of LAM. “They seemed to be really interested in interesting music. We shared a lot of [interests]. I was very vocal on social media about my appreciation of Ennio Morricone, and they were very responsive to that. You can hear in their music that they really enjoy the music of Angelo Badalamenti, whose work I also enjoy. I think that they’ve broken up though, I haven’t seen any more music from them.”
Wood ended up winding down in the mid- to late-2000s because Flake found he didn’t have the same time to invest in ensuring that each Wood release was as great as he wanted. By then, he’d (actually) gotten out of Dodge City, moved to Wyoming for awhile (it’s a state he loves), and eventually found himself in Statesville, North Carolina, a suburb of Charlotte.
To me, Wood Records is a bit of an anomaly as far as small labels go. Flake and his friends’ outsider-ish approach to music has much in common with the hometaper scene of the eighties and early nineties, although of course Wood came a bit later and used CD-Rs. And Wood existed largely in parallel to last vestiges of hometaperism. Flake tells me he didn’t really correspond with other labels, nor did he trade Wood releases. “I was pretty focused on what we were doing and what our artists were doing, which may have been to our detriment,” he says, explaining that he hoped Wood would have sold more music overall — in order to get his and his artists’ music out into the world.
It is likely these factors that have led to Wood Records’ small online footprint. Saturday Night Cedar sold 500 copies, yet it only garners three mentions online! I think of Wood as one of those undiscovered artifacts from the dawn of the internet age, when physical music releases could be sold online by tiny record labels, but streaming and full album downloads hadn’t taken over.
Fortunately, Flake has been putting up some of his own MWF releases on YouTube in full. I encourage him to consider Bandcamp as another venue. Does this mean we may soon see the re-emergence of the Wood catalog online? Perhaps. But Flake is understandably cautious about posting other artists’ material online. He won’t do so unless he gets the go-ahead from the producers themselves.
Until then, good luck finding physical copies of these obscure Wood releases. Several albums sold in single digits, and those that sold more have somehow remained offline. Flake himself still has copies of almost everything, but those are for the private collection only.
Thanks to Mark Flake for the interview. His website showcases his visual art as well as his exploits with various media.