Jam Eater Records: Always Scheming

Tommy Swanick interviews Lily Makela and Ellie Karavas, the founders of Jam Eater Records’, a women led, punk and indie centered recording studio and record label.

Tommy: Was there anything in particular that made you choose Jam Eater for the label’s name?

Ellie: Yeah, this is really nerdy, Lily is probably gonna’ hate this—

Lily: I don’t even know the story. 

E: It’s actually a very deep Mountain Goats (band) reference. They have this song called ‘Jam Eater Blues’, which is literally about somebody eating jelly out of a jar, but then I thought the name sounded really good for a recording studio, and a record label, because like, Jam as in the musical jam. I thought it was fun, I thought we could do fun stuff with the logo. The early logo was actually a jelly jar. The one now is a record with a bite taken out of it. But yeah, it’s just a really nerdy Mountain Goats reference.

T: What do you feel is the importance of having a women led recording studio in today’s society?

E: Can I answer this one?

L: Yeah, yeah.

E: I feel like it’s really really important. I don’t know how accurate it is, but there’s a statistic that’s thrown around sometimes that 98% of recording engineers are men. I don’t think that’s true, it’s probably lower than that, but it’s definitely very high, and I think that there’s a lot of, you know, I don’t know how to put it, there’s just a lot of a dude culture in recording studios.

T: It’s almost like a dude mentality, or even a man-tality, right?

E: Yeah, and I think like, even when you go on recording forums and stuff, it’s like this for a lot of people, especially people in a home studio or a DIY setting, it’s almost like this merging of old and new stuff. Like you still have these guys recording since the 90’s, when there was more money and they could have a bigger studio, and I think as a woman or a queer person going into that, you don’t know how they’ll feel about certain things and it can be kinda’ uncomfortable. It’s not uncomfortable to record with all men, I’m just saying, you know.

T: So it’s nice to take that uncertainty out of it and be like ‘yeah, this is a safe space.’

L: Yeah, and I think that 98% is just something that’s been thrown around and sticks in people’s heads, and that’s one of the reasons why, when I took over the Instagram account, I put ‘Women-Led’ on it, because the default is to just assume to be male.

E: Yeah, when I post on a forum or anything, the response back is always ‘Yeah dude, that’s awesome!’, or ‘Oh, bro, your studio looks awesome!’ when it doesn’t say I’m Ellie. There are also a lot of women who are recording engineers now, I know I have a bunch of friends who are doing it who are on the younger side, millennials or gen z folks, but there are very few studios owned by women. They exist, but they’re just so few.

T: Was there anything that particularly drove you to create this label and use it the way you have, for promoting and advocating for issues like women’s rights and black lives matter?

E: So I think the first part, why I wanted to found a label, was that I had friends who were in bands that I felt were really really great, unbelievably great, literally some of my favorite bands, no exaggeration. I think  they could be superstars, that they weren’t getting the attention they deserved, and also they may not have had the resources to record themselves in the way that they deserved to be heard. That was the main reason for starting the label, and as far as using it as a platform, I feel like you [Lily] could explain that?

L: Yeah, I think that using our platform definitely started after the killing of George Floyd, and it just felt like even if we had a 10 person audience, I’d be posting the same things. And I as a person took the time to create a resource list, since we’re both graphic designers by trade, so that’s how that started, and just taking responsibility because in the DIY scene, it’s not always seen as POC friendly.

T: So you’d say that sometimes the DIY scene isn’t exactly as progressive as you’d like?

E: I think the scene is progressive, but I just think it’s very very white.

L: Or people just don’t consciously use it as a platform to amplify marginalized voices, even though a lot of people in the DIY scene are the outcasts and weirdos. So just putting the responsibility on us to amplify more people who aren’t like us.

E: We’re mostly trying to just focus on our local community, especially on Long Island where there’s a large amount of conservatives. It’s great to be able to say ‘Hey, let’s gather,’ and I think there were a bunch of people who responded, and we were like ‘Wow, I didn’t even know there was a protest going on in our hometown.’

L: We make sure not to just do it online and make sure to show up in person and really be there. I was really surprised to find out that Long Island is almost as segregated as Chicago. The town that we live in is almost like 90% white, very similar to where you’re [Swanick] living right now (Note: Both me[Swanick] and Lily primarily grew up in a town with an overwhelming majority of white people northwest of Chicago). But there are plenty of black and white towns right next to each other, and people know about it, and I’d just feel sick if I didn’t do anything about it.

T: Has being a woman, or in Ellie’s case being transgender as well, made anything difficult for you to do?

E: For me, it’s definitely created some awkward situations for sure, but I’m super privileged, and it’s never been a huge issue for me. I’ve never been threatened with violence or been attacked for being trans in the music scene, but there’s been plenty of awkward moments. I bring this up a lot, and I wrote an article about it for a zine called Women in Sound, is a lot of times when people bring up recording vocals and getting backing vocals on their tracks and stuff, especially when it’s a band with a bunch of cis dudes, they’ll be like, “Hey, we’re gonna get some girls we know to come in so we can get some backing vocals for our song,” and there’s a uncomfortableness when they realize I’m female, but they don’t want me to sing on it because my voice is lower. It’s a weird thing because in that moment they realize that they kind of misgendered me in a way, or a part of my voice, especially since I sing and perform on a lot of the records I produce, like I’ll do backing vocals and guitar and keyboard and stuff. Other than that, not really much, how about you [Lily]?

L: Yeah, I would say it’s only been a bonus, because first of all, we’re obviously a queer couple, so anyone who’s not down with that is gone already. So that makes it easy, and second of all, I identify more as non-binary, and since Ellie is trans, we’ve had to deal with a lot of issues with gender, and so I hope that when people come to us, they don’t need to feel like they have to tiptoe around us—they can relax. We always respect that and ask people’s pronouns, and we do a bunch of interviews and reviews with a lot of bands, so we’re always very careful not to assume anyone’s identity, and we try to use neutral words. We’re very conscious about it, but in a way where it makes everybody more relaxed.

E: I think it’s an advantage in that way, because people will contact us specifically since we’re women or because I’m trans, because they feel comfortable recording with us, especially if they’re trans. I have the privilege of knowing some trans producers and engineers, but there’s not that many of us. We actually had a total stranger reach out to us who found us on Instagram from Florida who wanted me to mix some of her songs, and I was like ‘How did you find us?’ And she was like ‘I just saw you on Instagram, and I was like ‘Oh, a record label that sounds cool run by girls when most of the others are run by men.’ It’s been almost an advantage in that way.

T: You’ve got a sort of niche, then?

E: Yeah, it’s a niche for sure.

T: Speaking a little more musically, and with all factors considered, do you prefer working with analog or digital?

E: Oh, definitely prefer digital. It’s very hard to record in an analog format.

L: This is actually a very sore subject for Ellie.

E: I’ve been working on a completely analog project for the last two years or so, on and off. It’s recorded completely on tape, zero editing on the computer, just as a challenge to myself. And I can say after having that experience, and going back and working digitally with other bands that I’m producing, it sounds really cool, but it is just a grueling experience, because you have to do everything perfectly.

L: That calm combination with perfection does not work.

E: It really is just a vicious combination.

L: I think I’d have an easier time recording with analog than Ellie would, it just depends on your personality.

E: For sure.

L: And how comfortable you are with imperfections.

L: But for now it’s in the fun projects sector, we always record digital.

T: It’s like an old sports car, fun to drive, not to own.

T: So if you had all the resources at your disposal, and you could get anyone in your studio, who would it be?

E: My gut is to say like Bright Eyes, that’s the first thing I thought of, I’d love to work with Connor Oberst, but I don’t know if I’d want to record with Connor Oberst. I’d also love to work with Beau from Robot Princess and record some Robot Princess stuff.

L: Robot Princess is a band on our label.

E: We’ve released their stuff, but they work with this awesome producer named Travis Harrison who’s worked with great bands, but I’ve never actually been in a studio with Beau, and I think they’re like one of the most genius music groups.

L: Like big-brained geniuses, all of their songs are about wizards and these intricate stories.

E: They’re just a great band and I’d love to produce for them, they’re all amazing people.

L: My answer is I’d like to record just everybody we’ve ever met since quarantine.

E: That’s a fake answer.

L: No, it’s true though! I want to give recording time to people who can’t afford it, and I know it’s like the cheesiest, lamest answer, but it’s so true. I just wish I could give everyone in the DIY space some recording time. Just giving them the equipment, because I know there are really good songwriters out there.

T: Looking to the past and your prospective future, is there anything in particular that’s upcoming or that you’re particularly proud of doing?

E: So, between Covid and just the way things kind of ended up, almost nothing I’ve recorded in the last 3 years has been released. Like most people say, doing things that are creative are by far the coolest sounding and best engineered stuff I’ve ever recorded by far. For one of our projects, we actually rented out a larger studio and I went and engineered there to track the album and went back to my space to mix the album, and it was the first time we did anything like that. There’s just so much stuff we’ve been working on.

E: There’s this band called Tin Can collective, and we recorded a live session, which was a lounge version of a punk song on an album they already released, and I think it’s the best sounding thing I’ve ever recorded.

L: It sounds really good.

E: It sounds so good, and we actually recorded it a year ago, but things have just slowed down so much with Covid.

T: Do you think that there’s a way that you express womanhood or do you find your work to sometimes be more androgynous?

L: We both have our individual projects under the record label, and mine is called Delanor. One of the things we’ve been working on is the EP for that, my first EP, and a lot of my songs are about having my period and the anxiety and angst surrounding that. So I think I express a lot of my experiences with begrudgingly being a woman and being born that way. There are totally songs and poetry that I write about being frustrated with my body that I hope, in releasing these songs, they’ll relate to someone else and they’ll get it.

E: And for me, I don’t know if this is answering the exact question, but I’ll do my best, which is I feel like from a recording standpoint, specifically, when I’m working in the studio, I think I try to engage with other people with other aspects of themselves that are considered more feminine in our culture, although they are not feminine traits, like sensitivity, emotional vulnerability. I think I try to open people up to not being afraid to talk about those things. It’s kind of funny how awkward it can be, actually, to be working with a songwriter who’s a cis male who’s written a song about heartbreak, and clearly through what they’ve written they’re expressing this, but then when they’re there with me in person or with their other cis male bandmates, if they are, there’s this huge veil of guardedness, and it’s kind of funny in a way. Like, okay, you’ve written this intimate and sensitive song, but when you’re there, you’re just putting on this tough facade, just because that’s where our culture is at. So just in terms of that, I don’t think those are really feminine traits, but I try to open people who might not be women or outgoingly queer, or just not used to dealing with stuff like that. 

T: That’s a great answer. Okay, this one is a little easier. So for people who might be reading this, what do you want them to understand about you?

E: Wow. Good question. Um, what do I want them to understand about me, jeez.

L: I think we want people to understand that we’re genuinely in love with everything we talk about and put out, that we’re just big nerds, that’s all we are. We’re just very sensitive nerdy people. We literally love everything we make and put our hands on and the people we interact with. I think that’s what I want people to know. I know we’re like doing Instagram posts every day and doing social media games, but I’m generally not posting things if I’m not interested in.

T: Yeah, you’re on the grind, but you’re not gonna grind if it’s not good.

L: Yeah, it has to be something we’re genuinely interested in and not just going through the motions.

E: Yeah, I’d say the same thing too for any bands that I work with, and I think people who work with me definitely know this, but people who’ve considered it or maybe haven’t might not, but I think there’s a sense of honesty in what we do, and in the studio as well. I’m never going to work with a band just for the money, and I’m never going to gas anyone up and tell them that something’s good when it’s not good or anything like that. And that doesn’t mean I’m shaming people or being negative, it just means that I think if I see an issue, I like to tell people I see an issue and we can work on it together to get through it and achieve great things. The reason I bring this up specifically is that I’ve experienced firsthand going into a studio and asking an engineer or producer, “Hey, how did you think that take was?”, or “What do you think of this song?”, and hearing their really half-assed answer where it becomes apparent that they don’t really care about me or my music, they’re just there to get the paycheck. And it really sucks to be in that position. And one main thing in this studio is to never put anyone I record or mix in that position.

T: Was the mission of the record label to have it be women led, or as you went along was it more of a thing that just occurred?

E: So definitely when it started.

L: So it started 10 years ago, the label. We weren’t even together.

E: Well the label didn’t start 10 years ago. The first release on the label was in 2014, but in the recording studio, I recorded my first band in 2011. But at the time, I didn’t even know I was transgender, and it definitely didn’t start as that. It definitely started with me in my own way just hearing bands that were good and saying, ‘You guys gotta’ come record with me, because your songs sound so good, but just don’t do whatever you’re doing, it sounds so bad, but your songwriting is good, just let me help you!’ In the beginning, I was just doing it for free because I just wanted to help these bands that I thought were awesome, but that’s kind of a tangent. But no, I had no idea it was going to be women led, because I didn’t even know I was a woman, or trans.

L: If you’re referring to the bio, where it says ‘Women-Led’, I put that in at the beginning of this year when I was noticing it was something that makes us unique and gives us a unique perspective. And seeing other women-led groups, for instance our friends at Women in Sound, and just how important it is to be a visible person, that’s our reason for our push.

E: Yeah, it became our mission over time.

T: What do you see in the future for you guys? Anything big you’re thinking of branching out into?

L: We’ve already branched out a lot this year.

E: Yeah, this year we’ve launched two different podcasts, a video show, we basically launched our YouTube channel, so there’s all kinds of stuff, from recording and mixing to tutorials, to music videos for the bands on our label, our music review shows, the podcasts and so on. That’s all new this year.

L: We’re always doing weird stuff. Ellie hand-animated a lyric video for one of our bands. We didn’t even know how to animate, but we’re both the kind of people to just pick up a skill.

E: Like this is gonna be annoying, but I’m just gonna learn how to do this. I think there’s a lot of stuff in the pipeline we’d love to do if the financial situation is right.

L: Definitely sign a lot more people.

E: Yeah, we would love to sign a lot more bands. Speaking for myself, probably you too [Lily], I’d love to put out more vinyl. There’s a lot of stuff. I’ve thought about building a bigger studio, first of all, and a studio where I could record live sessions, and also produce video content around bands as they’re working on stuff. I’ve thought about that for years, but there’s just not enough space in the current studio to have cameras and so on. There’s a couple of studios who are doing stuff kind of like that, and I just thought it would be another cool way to help out bands we like, like ‘You’re gonna come to the studio, we’re gonna produce some tracks, and you’ll have a cool in-the-studio video.’ There’s so many cool things we could do.

L: I think for my side, I’m always thinking about more and more content creation. Not just looking at our record label in just one way where we only sign bands, make music and record people, where I’m actually documenting anything we do in relation to music, which is very new to me and difficult, since I’m very camera shy and not good with public speaking. Just things that I’ve always done that I haven’t ever thought about documenting, like record hunting or how I’ll just sit on Discogs till 3 in the morning and look through all this weird music, and I finally put out a video on that, where I talk about records I’ve bought that I’ve always wanted. I think doing the jazz podcast was another big step for me and my friend Charlie.

[Charlie is an acquaintance of Lily who shares her love of jazz, and who I’ve had the pleasure of meeting numerous times.]

L: But yeah, we’re very much just going with the flow right now, of just putting stuff out and getting used to it.

E: And kind of seeing what works and what doesn’t—what feels good.

L: We also have just big plans in our head for when we eventually move to a new place, finding the perfect garage.

E: I joke about that, we drive around looking at detached garages that aren’t attached to the house, and like ‘Ooh, that one has really high ceilings, that one has a vaulted ceiling, that one has a little loft where we could have an iso booth,’ I’m just seeing the studios in all the garages that we drive by, or a studio in a barn would be rad.

L: We’ve always had dreams like that, of just having a little farm.

E: We want to do a zine, too.

L: We have a bunch of ideas, and the thing is we actually do all of them.

E: The best one, the new one, is to do a hybrid bed and breakfast-slash-recording studio, where you come for the weekend, and this is our way of living in the middle of nowhere, we’d be like, ‘Come to our studio for a weekend or a week in the mountains, or wherever the heck it is,’ and you just stay there, and we just record nonstop, hang out, do whatever.

L: There’s a billion things we want to do.

E: A billion schemes, always scheming. That should be our subtitle, ‘Jam Eater Records: Always Scheming’.

T: I’ll be sure to get that in. Okay, so one more, and it’s a little less upbeat. You’ve mentioned before that 98% statistic, even though it might not be entirely accurate, but it’s clear that the recording is predominantly full of white males. Has that mentality and the demographics that surround this industry influenced the way you operate?

E: It’s definitely influenced the way we’ve operated. We’ve touched on this before, but the one thing I want to point out is, I don’t know how to say this, but it’s actually a little bit difficult sometimes to find the diverse range of clients I want to work with sometimes. And I feel like, well there’s a lot of factors that go into it, but still, I still keep getting approached mostly by bands of white dudes. And it’s fine to record bands of white dudes, but I think as you said, our studio sort of caters to a niche, I wish we could connect with that niche more, and work with those people more, since I think a lot of times those are people who are more marginalized or may not have the resources.

E: I don’t think that’s exactly answering the question, but it’s still important.

T: So you’re not just trying to cater to anybody, but more towards everybody.

L: I think that is what has pushed us to keep pushing outside.

E: And I think it’s where we live, too, since we live on Long Island, not NYC or Brooklyn, which is very different in terms of diversity.

L: And I think the different DIY communities are where we get most of our clients, people who are around us who we’ve connected with, but people around us who are BIPOC aren’t given as much of a platform as they deserve. Like when someone is putting a bill together, people don’t really think about trying to diversify the bill, which is especially problematic in smaller scenes. And it’s mostly white dudes, too, so that goes for other genders and orientations, and things like that, so it’s super white male focused, even in smaller communities.

E: I know we’ve touched on the client side, and the question was more about competing studios, but that’s the way that I think about it most often. We interact with fans more than other studios.

L: Recording studios are kind of like islands, we don’t really contact each other, if at all.

T: So you’re mostly enemies with other studios?

L: I think if we had a more capitalist mindset and we were focused on money it’d make sense, but we’re very chill and focused more on ourselves and what we do. I think instead of pointing out the other wrongs in other studios, we’re more focused on shouting ourselves out.

E: And I think our studio rates speak for that, which are designed to be affordable for everyone. We use a sliding scale, and the standard rate is really low anyways.

L: I also want to start doing more non-monetary trades.

E: Yeah, we’re actually hopefully doing that this weekend. We’re doing a labor trade, so someone’s helping me build a small kitchen in the back of our touring van, and I’m giving them some studio time. I think that stuff like that is fun.

L: Thinking back to the question, because we know the classical structure of white male capitalists, we’re pretty much the opposite. We are a business and we charge people for time, but we’re willing to not be satisfied and settle with that.

T: Anything else you want to say? Any labels you want to diss?

L: Nooo, we’re very loving people.

E: The normal thing I’d say is check out our YouTube and Instagram, but the main thing I’d say is if you are an independent musician or recording engineer or anything in that space, don’t let the idea of DIY hold you back. What I mean is don’t think you have to do everything yourself, it’s okay to ask for help and for other people to get involved when you’re not good at something or when something’s not working. Of course everyone has to start somewhere and they have to learn, but too many people do themselves a disservice when they do everything themselves and doing none of those things well because they thought it was what they had to do to be authentically Indie or DIY. That’s something I thought when I was younger, but now that I’m older, I realize that everyone you’ve ever looked up to has gotten help in some way, and it’s okay to get help and collaborate. That’s my main advice.

L: We run on: enthusiasm, love, friendship, and that’s it. Always reach out to us, it’s just us, and we’re always looking for people to connect with, and once we can tour again we’d love to find people to hang out with. Our online doors are open, not our physical ones, but the online ones are.

E: Our DMs are open. Cool?

T: Yeah, cool!

You can follow Jam Eater Records on Instagram @jameaterrecords and explore the explore the many ways to stay connected with them with this link: https://linktr.ee/jameaterrecords

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