SAN ANTONIO CURRENT | 6/17/2009
Music
Exponential growth
Local turntablist label goes from the bedroom to the blogosphere

by Johnston Farrow

Chuck Kerr
Diego Chavez, Diego Bernal, Ernest Gonzales, and Daniel Stanush are the main components of the Exponential Records equation.

Exponential Records, a local label that releases a handful of projects a year by progressive electronic artists, is transforming the SA scene. This group of Latino bedroom musicians, who bonded over experimental synth samples and hip-hop beats, is getting some major recognition from big names in the music industry and setting a new standard for San Anto cool. It’s time to take a listen.

“I always wanted the name to be like something’s always building,” de-facto label head Ernest Gonzales says. “It’s the whole idea of something being exponential, that’s growing with time, accelerating in a way. Electronic music always seems to be where ideas come from. It starts with electronic music, then works its way into the mainstream.”

Exponential Records is a part-time job and full-time concern for Gonzales, a soft-spoken husband and father of two who pays the bills as a middle-school computer teacher. The label came to fruition in 2002 after Gonzales met Mike Pendon, known locally as DJ Jester the Filipino Fist, while both were students at UT-San Antonio.

Earlier that year, Pendon had dropped off a self-produced mix album at New York radio station WFMU while he was on tour. The station wanted more from the high-energy hip-hop turntablist. Gonzales offered to start a record label and officially release Jester’s Heavily Booted mix as well as hip-hop and electronic instrumentals under his own name and the now defunct Theory of Everything moniker.

Gonzales’s music veers from Nintendo sound-effects to sonic lullabies and wouldn’t seem out of place on either the credits of Grey’s Anatomy or an X-Box game starring philosophical ninjas.

“The whole time I was working on my music, and I wanted some way of getting it out,” says a bespectacled Gonzales over burgers at the Cove. “It was kind of one of those things where we were like, ‘Let’s start a label, make these CDs ourselves, and put them out.”

After some research, Gonzales found a manufacturing company that agreed to press 1,000 copies of Heavily Booted for distribution through Revolver Music. Eventually 2,500 units moved nationally — earning enough to prompt Gonzales and Pendon to seriously consider releasing other projects.

Through friends and shows, Gonzales discovered more likeminded local musicians. Gonzales met future Exponential artist Diego Chavez at a 2003 poetry slam. Gonzales and Chavez, a freelance graphic designer and video artist who creates songs influenced by “Aphex Twin, Portishead, Biggie, and Wu-Tang,” bonded over their love of Brazilian avant-garde musician Amon Tobin.

“Jason [Torres] from Lotus Tribe met Ernest first, and when he talked about him, he brought up Amon Tobin,” Chavez says. “I was like, ‘I want to meet this guy who makes beats and is into Amon Tobin.’ At the time we were really into Ninja Tune records.”

Chavez would become one of Exponential’s most high-profile artists to date. Working as Aether, Chavez released Artifacts, a solo album layering hip-hop breaks with bright melodies and haunting vocal samples, and then as A.M. Architect, a duo with Daniel Stanush, he released Road To The Sun, a warm blend of rolling Rhodes keyboard riffs with a hint of Kings of Convenience’s folktronica.

“I was naturally attracted to [Chavez’s] music because it’s awesome,” says Gonzales. “Then the people I started meeting, we all had similar sounds. The first album that we came together on, Collapsing Cultures, it definitely had that down-tempo theme to it. I think that CD set the tone for the whole label.”

Exponential Records has since grown into a major touchstone for Texas beat-driven electronic music thanks to 2004’s Collapsing Cultures and several similar compilations featuring label-picked tracks from Texas musicians. Gonzales discovered many of the artists via peer-to-peer sites such as MySpace.

Diego Bernal, another S.A.-based noise-nik who doubles as a civil-rights lawyer, was one such artist. Bernal wrote to Gonzales to thank him for Exponential’s positive impact on the San Antonio scene. Bernal went on to release the Bring It On Home EP and the For Corners full-length on the label. His music incorporates upbeat ’60s soul and ’70s funk with hip-hop rhythms.

“There is something really exciting about living your schoolboy dream, putting it out, having people listen to it, and how crazy and cool that is,” Bernal says. “All of us have spent time in our bedrooms or curled up to some beat machine. To think that anyone around the country or even on the other side of the world has heard 30 seconds of one of your songs is really cool.”

The label is not only a lesson in originality, but also an example of how to release music in the modern business climate. While majors flounder, Exponential stays distinctly DIY, a collaborative effort that splits costs between the label and artists. While Revolver distributed Pendon’s disc and Collapsing Cultures, most Exponential releases are strictly digital and some are available for free through the label’s website.

While none of Exponential’s artists is living off royalties, the hard work is finally starting to pay off. Music critics from outlets such as Pitchfork, XLR8R, MTV.com, and Brooklyn Vegan are taking notice. Through connections and fans, both Chavez (under his Aether guise) and Gonzales played Atlanta earlier this year, and Gonzales toured the Northwest.

Licensing deals often supplement production costs. Exponential songs found their way onto Direct TV (Gonzales’s unreleased “Backpack”); TV shows The Fizz (“Backpack” again) and Project My World (Gonzales’s “While On Saturn’s Rings”); and ads for products such as State Farm insurance (A.M. Architect’s “Upon”), Sims Snowboards (Day of the Woman, “Cassette Tape”), Levi’s (unreleased Gonzales track), and North Face (A.M.’s “Unspoken”).

“I think part of the reason why Exponential is doing so well is because it isn’t so much focused on record sales,” says Gonzales’ wife Devyn, who helps out with the day-to-day operations of the label, “but more of how much actual product is being sold in terms of licensing, making money for the artists through commercials. One thing is people being able to hear it for free. It’s not having to rely on sales as much as major companies need them.”

Chavez’s Aether release, Artifacts, has been one of the biggest critical and commercial releases for Exponential, with more 7,000 paid downloads, according to Gonzales. It got a big push from the placement of the song “Orfeu Negro” on an iTunes podcast around Christmastime, and its 7.0 score (comparable to a 4-star review in Rolling Stone) from notoriously finicky online music pub Pitchfork. Meanwhile, Bernal’s For Corners has been downloaded (for free) more than 40,000 times.

Influential electronic magazine URB named Exponential artist Mexicans With Guns, a traditional electro project by an artist whose identity Gonzales wishes to remain anonymous, as one of its NEXT 100. A quick Google search reveals the man responsible for MWG’s infectious electro-driven sound, which is more closely associated with the bright, repetitive melodies of Daft Punk than the keyboard glitches and string-synth sounds found on Gonzales’s previous releases.

“I actually feel weird putting out the Mexicans With Guns stuff because it’s so straight-up dance,” Gonzales says, who is considering starting a new label called Animal Noise to release more dance-oriented records. “It’s definitely inspired by the music heard in clubs. It’s four-four beats, electro, Miami bass music, 2 Live Crew, shake-your-ass type of vibe.”

Not only is Mexicans With Guns making killer remixes of tracks by popular indie artists such as Animal Collective, Postal Service, and Faunts, he will also embark on a high-profile West Coast tour this July and release a song, a remix by Houston-based Yppa called “Gumball Machine Weekend,” later this summer on the cream-of-the-crop Ninja Tune label. Quite a bit of attention considering the label has yet to launch a major tour.

“I’ve always thought touring is the next step,” says Gonzales. “Someone always told me the key to a small label is getting the music out there. And while it’s scary that we really haven’t been on tour before … it’s really cool that we’re getting these opportunities.”

The label has a full slate of events on the horizon, including the monthly Get Busy! at Limelight every first Friday with Gonzales and Jester, as well as Rewind Cinema, a monthly event in partnership with the Alamo Drafthouse. Fans of the label and campy film can hear some of the label artists play before and after a flick chosen by Exponential and the theater. Swamp Thing is on tap for June 20. A new Exponential DJ night titled Let’s Be Friends is set for a July 11 debut at the Mineshaft.

Though it’s the shit-hot music that has critics drooling over Exponential, it might be the diversity of sounds that will prove key to the label’s long-term success. Chavez, Bernal, and Gonzales receive fan emails from other states and sometimes other countries, from as far away as Belize and Croatia. Bernal once got a note saying that someone’s grandmother enjoyed his work.

Collapsing Cultures was a record that was played in church and at a porn shop at the same time,” Devyn Gonzales says about the label-defining compilation, and she’s being literal. “A friend who is a musician played it at his church before a service. My uncle works at the porn shop.”

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