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Milwaukee’s Skweee Label Innocuous Records Thinks Globally

Jan. 3, 2017
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On Milwaukee’s East Side, you’ll find the headquarters to Innocuous Records, a small label that specializes in an experimental sub-genre of electronic music called skweee. For the uninitiated, skweee music is basically a combination of modern dubstep synths, sample-heavy chiptune, and cold-feeling R&B soul/funk. Think of it as electronic music’s version of punk—in other words, it’s outsider music.

But skweee is more than just about the music, it’s about being part of a culture and belonging to something bigger than you. It’s immersive, and it’s that pull that first drew Noah Coleman, 28, to start making music. He started DJing hip-hop back in the early aughts, but it wasn’t until he discovered skweee that he found his true passion. Recording under the moniker DJ Puffin, he got into making experimental electronic music in 2010, uploading his work to Soundcloud. “I was very inspired by skweee music at that time, which was really kind of building up momentum,” he recalls. “So, I decided to start a label based on what I’d been hearing.”

Coleman founded Innocuous Records in 2011 to be a “platform for releasing other people’s music” as well as his own, and used social media to spread the word and network. Coleman’s personal touch when it came to networking paid off. “I was always really careful to work within the culture itself and contact the artists directly,” Coleman explains. Record trading between his label and others, as well as Soundcloud deep dives, allowed him to connect globally. He’s also quick to acknowledge that “a lot of the community is built” through networking and navigating the underground culture.

This, of course, explains part of Innocuous Records’ success: It may be a tiny skweee label in Milwaukee, but its roster boasts artists from Russia, France and the Netherlands. When Coleman casually mentions a friend in Beijing who’s helped with some of IR’s releases, I laugh and point out how unusual that is. “Yeah, it was mostly through liking each other’s music, and having a similar artistic vision early on,” he replies. “I felt like I connected with a lot of different people from a lot of different places just by happenstance—kind of serendipitous moments.”

It’s that serendipity that put him into contact with Hayden Thomson, aka djkrpt. A producer in his own right, Thomson came across Coleman’s skweee mixes on Soundcloud, started following what he was doing with Innocuous, and decided to send Coleman a sample of his own work. “I watched as Innocuous grew into an actual record label with its first vinyl release,” Thomson remembers. “As further releases came about, he branched out into another of his musical loves, U.K. grime, and managed to release another handful of singles in that genre.” 

Inspired by Coleman, Thomson decided to start a label himself, Tiburoni Records. The motive for Thomson was different to start a skweee label, however. “I had developed an obsession with the music and its distinctive personality to the point where I decided that there wasn’t enough music being released in time for me to devour it,” he explains. “Tiburoni was spawned as an answer to this craving, as I literally went through Soundcloud and got a hold of various up-and-comers to the scene” for his first release, a compilation called Skweee Shanties. As for his own productions, Thomson works to “make pure skweee in the vein of the legends, trying to get a real analogue sound out of my digital set up.” He likes to work dance music into his music when possible, but his vision is perhaps more old-school than other skweee artists. 

For Coleman, it’s more about music in and of itself that’s at the heart of his own productions. I point out that he and his roster seem interested in the concept of genre, and also how to break away from it. “For me, it was a lot about the feeling of trying to preserve a lot of sounds that might otherwise be lost or forgotten in some way,” he states. “But then, also preserving the idea of music not just as something that’s an artifice, but something that’s more immaterial—zoning in on the more mysterious elements of sound itself.” 

Whether skweee is for you or not, the DIY ethic and the tightknit community is something to appreciate. After all, it’s this sense of belonging that fostered the creation of Innocuous and Tiburoni. As much as the music, skweee lends itself to outside-the-box thinkers who have their own style and are willing to take music in weird, new directions. Says Coleman, “It’s good to see other people are taking up their own torch and really doing their own thing with what we were interested in originally.” 

Stream releases from Innocuous Records at innocuous.bandcamp.com.

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