Photos by Kiki Vassilakis
On a bright hunday afternoon Mike Vitali takes a seat in a faux-leather chair in the middle of a bustling Guilderland coffee shop–his long blonde hair, thick-rimmed spectacles and skater attire betrays his long history with heavy music only slightly. I’m excited, bordering on nervous, about meeting Vitali here today. I’m aware of his musical history and I’m admittedly a fan of record label Magnetic Eye.
The Manhattan native grew up in a record collecting family, he attended Berklee School of Music in the ‘90s and founded the band Ajna Chakra during his time in Boston. Vitali came from a scene known for its great hardcore and metal crossover acts like Converge and Cave In and moved to the Capital Region and formed the highly energetic, Helmet-influenced Greatdayforup and later was the main musical force behind stoner-rock purveyors IronWeed.
In 2011, Vitali put together Magnetic Eye Records as a means to release Ironweed’s albums on vinyl and to boost Vitali’s friends in the Capital Region music scene. Six years later, Magnetic Eye has become an influential purveyor of doom, stoner, sludge and hardcore-taking advantage not only of the explosion of interest in the niche in doom and sludge metal and vinyl bust also navigating the ever-shifting world of music distribution and promotion in the digital age.
“What happened for me is I’d been on a few labels leading up to Small Stone Records, this label out of Detroit. The head of that label hadn’t really hadn’t gotten into pressing vinyl. This was around 2008, 2009. I really had just reacquainted myself with vinyl. I saw it was coming again and was trying to get Ironweed’s stuff released on it.”
The head of Small Stone thought vinyl would be too expensive and cumbersome. “A couple years had gone by and I had been researching more and I thought I really enjoy the business end; I have contacts and I don’t just want to be a guitar player in a band, maybe I can take some things I learned and help other people.”
At first, Vitali thought he’d approach the label as a collective with local musicians but getting everyone who expressed interest to actually contribute was harder than he expected.
For a while, Vitali treated the label as a hobby, he signed both local acts and national. Soon but interest in some of them was growing and the label expanded to focus on deluxe vinyl releases from hardcore, stoner rock, sludge and doom bands across the world. Utilizing online outlets like Bandcamp the label has become synonymous with exciting new acts like Vermont’s Ghastly Sound, Stockholm’s Domkraft, Mexico’s Low Flying Hawks, England’s Elephant Tree and Boston’s Summoner.
“When I finally started doing it I really realized ‘If I’m going to do this somewhat seriously I need to partner with other people,” said Vitali.
I was surprised to learn that Magnetic Eye is not Vitali’s day job. In fact Vitali has a consuming full-time gig–Magnetic Eye is a bit of a hobby. “We’re at the point where honestly we either have to commit to take the next step and go to the next level or I have to step back,” Vitali says.
I was reminded recently of Magnetic Eye’s existence thanks to a Kickstarter campaign to fund the label’s tribute to Pink Floyd’s The Wall. The Wall [Redux] features cover tracks from Mark Lanegan of Screaming Trees and Queens of the Stone Age fame, The Melvins, Pallbearer and Mammoth Weed Wizard Bastard–a veritable who’s who of modern sludge, stoner and doom rock.
Jadd Shickler, director of label operations, joined Magnetic Eye only about a year ago. He brought with him decades worth of experience working at a specialty label of his own.
Shickler and his friend Aaron Emmel graduated college in 1997 and both were adrift–they did however share a love for the band Kyuss–a stoner-rock band that eventually birthed Queens of the Stone Age. “So we regrouped in Albuquerque, I had a degree in creative writing he had a degree in international politics and we were Kyuss fans trading Kyuss bootlegs and hard-to-find singles,” explains Shickler. “We came across this guy who had a bootleg and we thought–’This is so good, someone should press this on CD and sell it.’ We did some investigating. And tried to contact the band to see if they would mind. We had no knowledge or thought toward the music business. The band was unofficially like ‘we’re not gonna say OK but if you do it, do it in cool way.’ So we put it out and things started snowball.”
The pair founded MeteorCity and wound up working with members of Kyuss, releasing lead singer John Garcia’s Unida project and later issuing releases from major stoner and doom bands like The Obsessed, Nebula, Spirit Cavern, Hermano. A decade later Shickler and his partner sold the label and online store they had founded. Shickler thought he’d dive back into ‘the real world.’”
Being out of the music business felt good “for a little while,” but then “it got really weird.” Shickler explains he went from the record label head who worked a waiting gig on the side to ‘Oh fuck I’m just a waiter, I’m too smart for this.’”
Shickler began writing about music and then last January he heard a record by Elephant Tree who are signed to Magnetic Eye. He connected with Vitali about interviewing the band and the pair connected. It didn’t happen immediately, but awhile later Shickler was on board at Magnetic Eye running day-to-day operations.
Vitali attributes Magnetic Eye’s recent growth to Schickler.
“Once connected with Jadd, things really started getting a lot more traction. He’s the full time label director and I’m not doing much day-to day-to be honest,” says Vitali. “One thing I like to do is design, audio and mastering stuff. So I’m still involved in some of that. But primarily at this point there are a couple of partnerships that keep us going. I’m not packing records out of my living room anymore.”
Tee Pee Records out of Brooklyn now handles Magnetic Eye’s shipping and customer service. Tee Pee is another label steeped in stoner and doom metal and currently counts Nebula, Earthless, King Tuff as signees.
“It took a while to get solid distribution deals but we have them now with Sony and The Orchard in the U.S.,” says Vitali. “So it has really gone from this tiny hobby idea to almost substantial and possibly viable beyond the original conception.”
Shickler said things have changed drastically since the late ‘90s when he was running MeteorCity. “What was the trigger for customers to want to buy a record is different now,” he explains. “It used to be about trusting you. If you put it out they wanted it–the fan/customer label relationship was critical. If it was on your online store and you specialized in the style they dug, they were going to buy it.”
Shickler says that song quality is more of a gateway these days. “My gateway to Magnetic Eye was Elephant Tree, a great band that sells because people are digging it. I see that quality has kind of become the factor rather than ‘this fits with your musical taste.’ That has changed and so has how people are communicating about it on social media.”
The focus for Shickler has been on doing PR, doing reviews, promoting album streams but he says he’s found it does not have the same impact as “a picture of gorgeous vinyl.”
“That has a greater impact on sales that something like a great review—which is what gets me. I read reviews and go ‘Ooooh!’” says Shickler.
Vitali laments that he is no longer writing notes to fans and maintaining the kind of personal relationships with customers that “really drove a lot of the buzz around the label initially.”
“We’re at the point now where people aren’t just buying things from us because of that personal relationship. And you start going have to rely on how good the songs are because there is no more direct connection. That connection drives a lot of these small businesses. We should really know soon whether we can grow beyond this mom and pop idea to a little more established, or maybe go back to releasing less and being smaller.”
As our interview comes to an end with that note of uncertainty I wonder how Vitali can seem so seemingly unemotional about the future of his label. His children bound in, blonde hair flowing, and pull him away from the interview. His family, job and regular life await. As do his various musical projects. Whether Magnetic Eye expands or retracts Vitali is happy with what he has achieved and the mark Magnetic Eye Records has made.
Notable Magnetic Eye Releases
“The End of Electricity”
The Swedish band combines the droning sludge of bands like Cult of Luna and Monolord with the precision of Helmet and psychedelia of Oranssi Pazuzu.
A mesmerizing blend of doom and shoegaze–Kofuku stands out as more artful and impactful than a simple “metal album” with meticulously crafted songs and universal themes.
Big sludge riffs and insanely catchy choruses make Elephant Tree the most obvious choice for a mainstream breakout act on Magnetic Eye.
Summoner’s hard-charging riffage and dramatic vocals draw listeners into an audio adventure that suggests Mastodon as much as it does Queens of the Stone Age.