Underwater Peoples

Things are going swimmingly for indie label Underwater Peoples

LO-FI FIEFDOM: Ari Stern at Underwater Peoples' headquarters -- a.k.a. his apartment. The lo-fi indie-rock label is building an audience through online promotion in conjunction with seven-inch vinyl releases from the likes of Real Estate and Julian Lynch.
LO-FI FIEFDOM: Ari Stern at Underwater Peoples' headquarters -- a.k.a. his apartment. The lo-fi indie-rock label is building an audience through online promotion in conjunction with seven-inch vinyl releases from the likes of Real Estate and Julian Lynch. (Michael Temchine For The Washington Post)
By Chris Richards
Sunday, October 25, 2009

It's 9 p.m. at Ari Stern's basement apartment -- that precious hour when he and his friend Sawyer Carter Jacobs can video-chat over Gmail. Stern is eating a dinner of baked beans in Adams Morgan. Jacobs is chomping on a breakfast sandwich in Beijing.

The duo, both 22, help run Underwater Peoples, a nascent indie label whose hyper-personal approach has earned microbursts of enthusiasm from around the globe. In a country where the Internet is carefully policed, an illicit DSL connection allows Jacobs to Twitter about the label's growing roster -- bands with names like Frat Dad and Fluffy Lumbers. It also beams him into Stern's apartment, the label's de facto headquarters. When Stern sneezes, Jacobs chimes in from 7,000 miles away: "Godblessyou . . . Godblessyou from the other side of the planet."

The Underwater Peoples "office" consists of a Lay-Z-Boy, some shelves and a laptop. From here, Stern, Jacobs and friends Evan Brody and Mike Mimoun have been issuing lo-fi recordings of indie-rock troupes since February, blasting out free MP3s to music blogs the world over. Since then, the label has won fans in New Zealand, Japan, Portugal, England, Spain and countless college towns across the States.

Underwater Peoples' ascent is marked by an intimacy and immediacy unique to the digital era. "Because of the Internet, we have the ability to reach an audience that we've never been able to reach before," says Stern, speaking not only of Underwater Peoples, but of DIY indie culture writ large. "There are still these independent, smaller, localized music communities . . . but now they have the chance to bring it out to the world."

The localized community Underwater Peoples showcases is actually a coterie of bands from suburban New Jersey. Stern and Brody grew up there, and most of the bands on the label's "Summertime Showcase" compilation hail from the Garden State, too. (A free download of "Showcase" earned the label instant fans, and Stern estimates the compilation has received more than 4,000 downloads since its release in May.)

The label gestated during the crew's freshman year at George Washington University, where Stern, Jacobs, Brody and Mimoun first bonded over the music of Neutral Milk Hotel. The foursome eventually began setting up house shows in Washington and invited an early incarnation of the label's soon-to-be-flagship band, Real Estate, to perform at Stern's former Dupont apartment in the summer of 2008.

By May 2009, the quartet had earned diplomas, formed a band called Family Portrait and garnered oodles of praise for the new record label.

And then they dispersed.

Brody returned to New Jersey, Mimoun went backpacking across Asia, Jacobs flew to China to live with his girlfriend and study for the LSAT, while Stern took a job at Red Onion Records & Books on 18th Street NW, allowing Underwater Peoples to keep its Washington street address.

But the label's street cred continues to blossom online. At first, the guys sent their MP3s to blogs, but instead of courting bigger outlets, they engaged smaller, fan-centric sites with eccentric names: Visitation Rites, Friendship Bracelet, Chocolate Bobka, Rose Quartz, Butter x Face. Attention trickled upwards to more popular sites like Gorilla Vs. Bear. Then to Pitchfork. Then to Rolling Stone.

"But we started with the most obscure blogs," Jacobs says. "Our goal was to get the music out there on a very personal level." And that approach is fundamental to Underwater Peoples' aesthetic -- the label's melodic, homespun brand of indie rock often feels as warm and approachable as the guys distributing it. As the label's unofficial publicist, Jacobs takes it upon himself to befriend any blogger who writes about its music.

In turn, blog hype serves as advertising for the label's physical, vinyl releases. Catering to collectors and enthusiasts, the label presses seven-inch vinyl singles in editions of 500. The label nets a few hundred bucks with each release and immediately dumps it into the budget for future releases.

The recent resurgence of vinyl is crucial to this business model -- a trend Stern sees during his 9-to-5 at Red Onion. "Vinyl is bigger, it's prettier-looking," Stern says. "And the whole argument of whether it sounds better aside, it's an experience."

The live experience helps, too, and this fall, Real Estate will be offering plenty of it. The New Jersey quartet was at Washington's Rock & Roll Hotel last week, preparing for a spate of shows at the annual CMJ festival in New York.

The band recently made bloglines when it announced that its debut album would be released by Brooklyn label Woodsist -- an imprint that mirrors Underwater Peoples' buzz on a slightly larger scale. But frontman Martin Courtney still associates Real Estate with the label that helped it get out of the gate.

"I look at [Underwater Peoples] as our home, our buddies," Courtney says. "It was cool because when they put out our seven-inch, it benefited both of us in a really positive way. We kind of came up to a certain level together."

Thirty minutes later, Courtney is onstage, steering Real Estate through an incredibly pleasurable fuzz. When the quartet dives into an instrumental called "Atlantic City," Stern's face breaks into a squinty smile. He's in the second row, a few bodies away from Brody (down from Jersey for the gig), who nods his heaping shelf of hair in time with the band's enchanting, cyclical riffs.

They may be influential young tastemakers, but they look like fans.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company