Hunter Mack is many things — visual artist, U.C. Berkeley mechanical engineering PhD, new dad — but music fans know him best as the owner and president of Oakland-based, 7-inch-centric Gold Robot Records. The indie label’s releases include the now-disbanded Volunteer Pioneer, San Francisco’s Man/Miracle, and Bonnie “Prince” Billy of Drag City Records, among others.
Thirty-two-year-old Mack, an avid concert-goer and audiophile, became disheartened when bands he saw perform only had their music available on CDRs. And he would continually hear these musicians express their want and longing to do a vinyl record. His close friend, Graham Hill, drummer for Beach House and Papercuts who records solo under the moniker Roman Ruins also had a few tracks that had not been released. “[Hill] is one of the reasons [I started the label]. His music needed to be preserved on something archival,” Mack explains.
Early on, Mack resolved to physically release GRR’s music on vinyl only (through its website, gold-robot.com/records, the label also distributes digital downloads). “I like the active listening experience that a 7-inch forces you into. You listen to things on one side; you have a song; if you want to listen to that song you have to actively flip it over,” he says. “Instead of setting your music on shuffle and not knowing where it came from or not making an actual choice, a 7-inch makes you — forces you — to make a choice.”
Thus GRR’s inaugural release was “Releasing Me/Your House,” a 7-inch by Roman Ruins, in 2007. “It was wonderful. I worked with [Hill] since and continue to work with him now,” Mack says.
Since its inception, GRR has grown to include a very diverse array of artists who have produced more than 30 releases, from Ned Oldham’s simple guitar songs, to the 1990s hip-hop of Meanest Man Contest, to the experimental noise rock of Railcars. “There’s something vain about being able to choose all the music that goes onto [the label]. I’m essentially the decider on what comes out,” he says. “For that reason, it ends up being an extremely eclectic collection of music because I listen to extremely eclectic music.”
An older version of GRR’s website explained that the only requirement for music to be considered for the label was that it “inspired space travel.” This, of course, was a joke — but it stuck and has become the label’s tagline throughout the years. In selecting artists to work with, Mack exclusively seeks out musicians who are as excited, motivated, and invested in the project as he is. “I’m just looking for stuff that I’m listening to and that I’m loving. I’m looking for somebody who needs my support,” he explains.
Mack enjoys working with artists in different stages in their careers: emerging artists like Monster Rally; well-established musicians doing a unique project (Bonnie “Prince” Billy’s Gold Robot Release featured poetry set to music); or a solo side project of an artist already in a band, like Roman Ruins. Mack’s openness to work with artists at different points in their professional careers reflects his commitment to providing musicians with several avenues to showcase their art.
This philosophy extends to designers too. While Mack has created album art for different releases — including the abstract cover for “Pastor/al,” a Roman Ruins 7-inch on orange vinyl — most of the artwork is done by other artists. “I know when I was just starting my visual arts career, I would have jumped at any chance to make art for a release. And so I’m trying to give people that opportunity,” Mack says. This year, Mack anticipates the release of five new GRR releases, from Not the 1s, Primary Structures, Seamonster, Monster Rally, and Roman Ruins. He acknowledges that this release schedule is very ambitious. “[It’s] a lot for me,” he says. Despite his mild apprehension, his passion for and love of music is palatable. “I’m not making any money off this,” Mack says. “It’s solely a project of getting music out and giving music back to the musicians.”
This article originally appeared in the San Francisco Bay Guardian on June 28, 2011