Mix 034: A tour of LGBTQ-centered Grimalkin Records with label facilitator Spartan Jet-Plex

In a time of serious uncertainty for music scenes both big and small, Nancy ‘Grim’ Kells (Spartan Jet-Plex) is providing a blueprint of how to make a DIY record label work and thrive. With their label Grimalkin Records, Grim has built a community that spans from their home state of Virginia to the rest of the world, always with a focus on LGBTQ artists, as well as those that are disabled.
Read on for our interview with Grim, as they discuss the origins of the label, involvement in the Richmond VA music scene, and plans for the future. Plus, listen to their guest mix featuring all Grimalkin artists, genre-hopping from the trap metal rap of rising star Backxwash and the breezy pop of Berko Lover, to the avant-garde sound collaging of FEYXUAN and the neon surrealism of Ishtar Sr. There’s really so much to discover here, we hope this mix serves as a useful introduction to an important label doing things a little differently.

Name: Nancy Grim Kells/Spartan Jet-Plex

I go by Grim.

Hometown: Reading, PA. I then lived 6 years in Philly and then 12 years in Los Angeles.

Where do you live now? a very rural area about an hour and 15-20 minutes south of Richmond, VA.

How long have you been making music as Spartan Jet-Plex? Your Bandcamp discography is pretty extensive!

I went through a few name changes over the years until I landed on Spartan Jet-plex at some point in the 90s, mid-late 90s.

When did you start Grimalkin Records? What did it take to build it to what it is today? 

I started doing research and planning in 2015/16. I did several benefit shows in Richmond and started volunteering my time with mutual aid organizations there like Virginia Anti-Violence Project and Nationz Foundation. I was going to shows and meeting people for several years. I organized some benefit shows and did a couple of benefit compilations. I made a few different practice runs of tapes and lathes to see what kind of money and work was involved and then got a few friends on board like Berko Lover and Eli Owens. I met Berko when I was organizing the compilations. I met Eli locally and they helped me with graphic design and our logo and general brainstorming, and we officially launched as Grimalkin Records in 2018. Eli’s Coming of Age was our very first release on tape. There was a lot of behind the scenes stuff that happened for years beforehand with researching and learning about how things worked and what costs were for a few years before we really got started. I recently made this 3 minute video that succinctly tells our story and what we are about for those who want a quick introduction.

Things sort of built and evolved over time as far as building relationships with musicians and other folks in music, as well as with mutual aid organizations. It’s been a slow build. We are in the process of forming a business plan and applying for grants and other funding. It has taken a ton of labor and personal financial investment to get us this far. I was laid off from my job in disability advocacy work in March 2020. My job was funding the label in large part for the first several years, and so when I lost my job, I had to make a lot of changes in order for Grimalkin to sustain. I was really lost for a minute after I lost my job, but I realized that I could bring disability justice work into Grimalkin and that Grimalkin really is a culmination of all the things I’m passionate about like organizing, disability justice, education, activism, mutual aid, and of course music. I thrive when I feel like I am useful and helping people, which is why my job was a huge part of my identity and why it was a huge blow when I was laid off, but after feeling down for a couple of days, I picked myself up and poured all my energy into Grimalkin.

We became an LLC in 2020 and I made a bunch of financial changes after discussing it with collective members. It was a pivotal moment, and since then, we have more than doubled in terms of releases and sales. We are fairly stable right now with sustaining ourselves with the ability to make monthly releases. Our next goal is to gain more patrons, donations, grants, and other funding in order for me to eventually get paid to continue this work, since it has become full time or more than a full time job for me, and we also need to be able to pay others to help us do this work. When I was working, I would pay people out of pocket for doing stuff for us like mastering and graphic design, but that isn’t sustainable anymore. I do believe we will get there, but it will take time, work, and persistence.  For now, we fundraise for anything we need outside of doing physical releases. We have big goals like eventually having a production division, as well as an educational division where we host regular educational workshops and skillshare sessions online and in-person. Currently we are also working on establishing a freelance page on our website of all the services and skills we can provide so that folks can get paid for freelance work, in addition to helping out Grimalkin in general.

Can you say a little about the Richmond VA music scene, and the parts of it that are closest and most important to you? Are the majority of Grimalkin artists based in Richmond?

It feels like forever ago actually since the pandemic. There are/were many house venues and other music venues in general in Richmond, but many were really struggling even before the pandemic and we lost several good ones before and after the pandemic. I have no idea what it will be like once shows start up again. If you had asked me this question while I was playing and organizing shows there regularly, I’d have a lot more to say specifically about certain places, but it has been over a year since I’ve done that there, so I unfortunately feel like I can’t say what is significant at the moment. It will be interesting to see how things pan out once things are more up and running again.

One thing that stood out to me when I first started going to shows in Richmond was how many folks making music are also involved in mutual aid and activism. That was exciting to me because I strongly believe that music and art can be a bridge and vehicle for positive changes we want to see in our world. I met a lot of people from going to shows and organizing benefit shows. We do have many artists that live in Richmond or Norfolk like Hunting Dog, Infinite Bliss, Eli OwensPhantómódel, and Cardinality, but we are an international label and collective, and expanding that perspective is important to us. I’ve met several of our artists and collective members from either them submitting their music to us or from social media interactions over time. We have released artists from all over the United States and the world. Several collective members live in different parts of the USA and the world. To keep connected and to discuss our goals and move things forward, we meet at least once a month online, which is really nice since we are all spread out.

You seem to have a pretty close relationship with fellow RVA label Citrus City, or at least a mutual admiration.

Manny Lemus who runs Citrus City has been great to me and Grimalkin. His label definitely inspired me in starting a label and he has been really helpful with advice and encouragement. We often get tapes from him, which helps us a lot financially. He is a really kind person and I have a lot of respect and admiration for how he does things and how he treats the people he works with.

Now that the pandemic is hopefully coming under control, are you involved with any plans for shows or events later in the year?

I am hoping that the accessibility of online shows carries over to physical venues. I think that would be a great small step towards accessibility that really hasn’t existed much in music. Right now I don’t have any shows planned in Richmond or elsewhere except online. I feel like it is still premature to start planning in-person shows. I’ve taken the pandemic seriously and haven’t done or gone anywhere that I didn’t need to go. I am still leery of trying to play shows until everyone has more access to the vaccines, which does seem to be slowly happening here in the states. I live in an extremely rural area so it felt slow coming here, but it finally happened which seems to be the case in general. I am finally getting my second shot later this month. I am playing an online show on June 24 on Amplify TV. I might try to sign up for an Around the Campfire show later this summer too. Grimalkin had our first annual winter showcase online in December and we plan to do that annually each December. It is a great way to showcase our artists, meet up at the end of the year to hang out and also do a little fundraising for us at the same time. That will likely remain an online thing so that everyone around the world who releases with us can be a part of it. I have had a dream and goal for a long time of having a Grimalkin showcase in real life one day possibly too and bounced around the idea of having it in three cities- Richmond, Philly and Baltimore, but that is a distant goal at this point. I certainly am itching to play shows out again and also organizing benefit shows again, so as soon as I feel like it is safe to do that again, it’s on!

One other really cool thing, I’d like to mention is that Grimalkin was invited to be a part of  Suono Per Il Popolo this coming June. It is based out of Montreal but the festival is all online this year. They’re having a Grimalkin mini-showcase and Quinton Barnes, Thamiel Sonozaki, Infinite Bliss and Woven In will be representing us there. They are also going to have me and the artists on afterwards for a roundtable discussion and interview. I am super excited about Grimalkin being asked to be a part of it.

Can you tell us about your current fundraiser?

We are always fundraising for something. When I was working I used to pay for a lot more things that I can’t do now so monthly for example, we fundraise to gift each artist some lathes and tapes. Our big fundraiser at the moment is for our business plan. It is almost done so we really do need to hustle. It costs $2500 and that also provides us support for 2 years with updating it. Carla (CJ Strategic Solutions) who we hired is also helping us with grant writing. We now have $849 more to raise to be able to pay her in full. We also strongly believe in mutual aid and support so every now again you’ll see us trying to spread the word and raise funds for various things and people in and out of Grimalkin. Also, most of our releases in part go to various mutual aid organizations and collectives. We encourage our artists to get more involved and active in their local communities and to learn about and support mutual aid efforts local to them and so for almost every release, the artist chooses where tape proceeds go.

What is the most recent release from Grimalkin (feel free to pick 2), and what’s coming up next?

We have already started planning 2022! I have to tell folks to check out all of our releases. I feel like they are all great. SInce we aren’t genre-based, there is bound to be something for everyone. We do tend to lean towards the experimental side of any genre with our releases though. I think all of us are a little weird and off a bit but in a good way (haha). We’ve turned a few submissions down actually that we all agreed were really good but just too normal or standard sounding. It would be too difficult for me to just pick one or two releases.

FEYXUAN‘s Weak & Divine (Detroit artist & collective member) just came out last month. Ishtar Sr.‘s debut album is out on May 21 (Philly artist and collective member). Two singles and the pre-order are up now. I have an EP out that just released on May 7th called Game of Death that I am especially proud of. It is an exclusive release for Grimalkin Bandcamp monthly subscribers and patrons on our Patreon, and it is also for sale on my personal Bandcamp. Namoro, a French duo based in Paris, has a single out May 7th too. Their full release, Xtra Caxxia, is out June 11. Jason Jamal‘s Sweet (Richmond artist) is out in July. Eli OwensKnock Knock has their release in August, and there is a new Hunting Dog release out in September. It’s a companion album to her 2019 album Body. The rest you’ll have to just wait and see, but I hope you don’t wait and recommend that everyone dives right in and then stick around to see all the magic happen going forward. If you follow us on Bandcamp, you’ll get a notification email every time we drop something. Follow us on FacebookInstagram and Twitter too.

Tracklist:
Backxwash – “Don’t Come to the Woods” – Deviancy (2019)
gravedream – “Squares and a Five” (2021)
Berko Lover – “It Won’t” – It Won’t / Stevonnie (Posi Vibes) split
Quinton Barnes – “Switch” – As a Motherfucker (2021)
Qween Paz – “Hold On Up” (2021)
Evvy Shark – “Weight (A Minute)” – Ms. Liza’s Psychic Hotline (2021)
A/C Repair School – “Bom Demais Pra Ser Mentira” – Órfãs (2021)
FEYXUAN – “Lord of the Butterflies” – Weak & Divine (2021)
Ishtar Sr. – “Technomancers” – Divine Ecdysis (2021)
Don’t do it, Neil – “SEX IN THE AFTERLIFE” – I WANNA SEE WHAT DEATH IS LIKE (2020)
Spartan Jet-Plex – “Suffering” – Suffering (2021)
Woven In – “I Don’t Love You” – Profess (2020)
Hunting Dog – “Dead Nettle” – Body (2019)
Cardinality – “Vanity” – Cardinality (2020)
Pedroso & Pedrosa – “Sorrindo” – Procuram Quati (2020)
Sylken Somers – “Robots” – Prone (2020)
So Nice Yesterday – “Stevonnie (Posi Vibes)” – It Won’t / Stevonnie (Posi Vibes) split
Dani Lee Pearce – “I Continue Living” – For as Briefly as I Live (2020)
Elizabeth Owens – “Rabbits” – Still Coming of Age (2019)
kate can wait – “flor de bolsillo” – Veraniegas (2020)
Phantómódel – “Passing Through” – Panic Picnic (2019)
Thaumiel Sonozaki – “ὁ ἄνεμος (Anemos)” – Amber Ethereal (2020)

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