Sometime last spring I was standing outside Sneaky Dee’s in Toronto during Canadian Music Week, smoking a cigarette and chatting with a friend of a friend. He asked how the bands had been so far. I shrugged and responded that I didn’t know because I hadn’t seen them; I was just there to catch Jon Rae Fletcher and The River, who were playing last. “Me too,” said the friend-of-a-friend. Now, I had met and befriended Jon Rae when I was living in Vancouver, and when he moved to Toronto a few years after I did. I went to see all his shows not only because his music is wonderful, but because he was a friend and that’s what you do. But there I was, loitering outside the bar, talking to someone who was there only because of the music, and I was pleased, almost ebullient.
A year later, that friend-of-a-friend, a Mr. Steven Himmelfarb, is Commander-in-Chief of the one-man Permafrost Records, and is gearing up for the June release of the newest Jon Rae Fletcher and The River album. Old Songs For the New Town will be the third release from Permafrost since Himmelfarb took charge of the label’s operations. His change from enthusiastic fan to key part of the project is a result of a ton of hard work borne out of a desire to be a part of it all.
Permafrost Records wasn’t started by Himmelfarb. Rather, he adopted the cryogenically frozen label, moved it over a province, and defrosted it, shaping it to his idea of the perfect project in the process. The original Permafrost Records was a Winnipeg-based outfit run by Richard Siegesmund, a friend of Steven’s friend Nicole Cohen (co-editor and co-creator of Shameless Magazine). In that incarnation, Permafrost released 4 full-length albums and two 7” inch records of what Steven characterizes as “obscure indie pop from the late 1990s.” However, the label’s output stopped when Richard quit the business to pursue pharmacy. Stephen and Nicole had plans to start a label together, but Nicole backed out of the deal so that she could start Shameless instead. She referred him to Richard because of his experience, and instead of advice, Richard gave Stephen Permafrost.
“Richard told me to take over his label because it had a back catalogue and he had a little logo and other little things, petty things that I didn’t want to deal with. It was semi-established. Because anyone can start a label it looks better to have released a few things.” One of the things that Steven wouldn’t have to deal with was picking a name. “As far as I know, Permafrost was just a name that Richard picked. It probably has more relevance in Winnipeg, but names are pointless anyway. I didn’t care and I kind of like the name and it made my life easy because I had a list of fifty names and I couldn’t decide.”
Thus, in the summer of 2003, Permafrost Records was reincarnated and has released two albums since. The first was an EP by The Patients, “romantic garage rockers who are destined to stay in obscurity for another twenty-five years,” and Good Grooming For Girls, the fundraiser compilation CD for Shameless [reviewed in the December 04/January 05 issue of DiSCORDER]. Nicole may have backed out of starting the label with Steven, but there were clearly no hard feelings, as Steven worked his butt off for his friend putting together the album. It was Good Grooming For Girls that initially sparked my interest in Permafrost—I was wowed by the incredible assortment of bands brought together on one record. Steven was equally impressed with what he was able to do. He talks of how when he and Nicole were discussing how rad it would be to do a CD for Shameless, he was hit with the sudden revelation, “I have a label! I’ll put it out!” So he set about working on the project. “I wrote individual pitches to the bands I liked,” he said, explaining how GGFG came to be. “To my chagrin, almost everyone I asked said yes to the project. We were blown away when Kimya Dawson of the Moldy Peaches said she’d record a new song for us. The Arcade Fire gave us a song from their rare EP; Controller.Controller was down and so was Mecca Normal. The artists we worked with were amazing.”
Himmelfarb’s cynicism and self-depreciation about his hand in the awesomeness of GGFG spills over into his participation in Toronto’s indie music scene. Some labels are the projects of bands who start up labels to release their own material, some are collectives like Arts and Crafts or Blocks Recording Club, and some are the “big” indie labels like Mint or Three Gut; Steven claims that Permafrost doesn’t really fit in with those other labels. “I’m not an artist, though I wish I was, and I don’t play in a band, because I suck,” he says. “I don’t have a team of people working together at this.” Steven Himmelfarb is simply a guy who likes music and wants to participate in its creation and dissemination. “Essentially, I thought there was—and still is—an excess of amazing bands that aren’t signed, that people don’t know about. I wanted to use my label as a stepping-stone for bands. In my head I mapped out the label to be a fun side project where I could help bands, introduce people to good music, and keep juggling the same amount of money around until it ran out.”
So has he managed to achieve this? So far, it seems, yes. Good Grooming For Girls has been a resounding success. All of the 500 copies pressed have been sold and a second volume is in progress; the first volume brought attention and recognition to some of Steven’s favourite artists and led directly into Permafrost getting to release the new Jon Rae Fletcher and The River album. Permafrost Records is a project in a city of projects, a player in a scene Steven describes as “very friendly. Perhaps there is a very slight cold exterior, but it’s broken down pretty easily and on the inside, it’s nothing but warmth.”
That cool surface comes out when Steven talks about how his label teams up with artists. “It’s pretty awkward,” he says, “it’s like asking someone out on a date. It’s like ‘so, what are you guys up to for the year…cool…and…like…cool…so…maybe…’ I’ve said that to someone and that’s been said to me. It usually works out.” That dating trope is in play when he talks about how he’d like Permafrost to grow. “Permafrost isn’t a collective, and right now it’s a one-man label—though I’d kill to change that, I just haven’t met the right person or people who would make it work.” It makes sense though. Projects like Permafrost Records are built on personal dreams and desires. If you’re going to share your project with someone it’s going to be intimate. “Ideally, I’d like to meet one or two or three others who have the same vision as me and want to merge ideas.”
So ladies, gents, artists, musicians, indie rock enthusiasts: Permafrost Records is available! Though a bit awkward, that handsome label leaning against the wall of the club with a cigarette in hand just may be your perfect match.