Waxing Poetic

Working in a corner of Gotta Groove Records on a record press that was made by the Hamilton Manufacturing Company in the 1970s, two women are transforming the process of making vinyl records into art. On one wall within the unique factory is a display of their latest oeuvre: 12-inch discs that are unlike any other. They are festooned with lime-green spirals and cascading rainbow stripes. One even features a real neon-orange fishnet stocking stretched over translucent vinyl.
These aren’t your dad’s 33s.

Sarah Barker, a record presser at Gotta Groove, displays a seven-inch record in opaque fire engine red as each of the machines around her hum with vigor –  on one of the eight presses, a reissue of Patti Smith’s Horses (not in red) is being made.

She holds up the red seven-inch, plucked from a stack of a dozen “literally hot off the press.”
“Some purists prefer the plain old black,” says Barker, “others want something a little more ... ” She nods to the wall of colored vinyl. “It all depends on personal preference.”

Barker is one-half of Wax Mage, a custom record label specializing in multi-colored vinyl that’s spearheaded by entrepreneur-musician Heather Gmucs. What began as an after-work experiment last summer by bassist Gmucs has since grown into a Gotta Groove offshoot with significant potential. The Wax Mage credo, a full-hued philosophy that records are art in their own right, makes the two-person effort one of the unique ventures – save for a handful across the country – in what some have dubbed the ongoing vinyl renaissance.

Though your average presser is well versed in industry standards such as splatter and half-and-half designs, Gmucs took the concept a step further in 2010 when she began inserting various colored “flash” (vinyl scraps) or PVC onto the unshaped preliminary vinyl “biscuit” out of curiosity. After testing out a few designs for local bands, including her own former HotChaCha, Gmucs partnered with trainee Barker to debut their work via Instagram. Followers were enthralled. Prospective buyers, some out-of-state, began phoning Gotta Groove specifically to have an order produced by Gmucs or Barker. The venture soon found its wings. Today, it’s not uncommon for Wax Mage to have five releases on queue at a time.

“We had no intention of becoming an actual business,” says Gmucs. “We just needed a place to put our designs. And at first I had no idea what I was doing. I was just going to work and blowing my own mind.”

Record pressing opened a whole world of experimentation to the Wax Mage duo. From lavender-scented discs to a one-time SPAM pressing (“Never doing that again”), Gmucs’s time-tested designs either make the grade – she keeps a secretive, “small book” of good press techniques – or simply can’t withstand the 350-degree heat. Color-changing records? Liquid filled? For Gmucs, if it can be pressed, there are no aesthetic boundaries. “I draw from the most bizarre places,” she notes of her inspiration. “I’ll wake up after I have a dream, and just go at it.”

Heather Gmucs and Sarah Barker of Wax Mage

Though she’s has been experimenting with custom records for six years, she’s definitely not the first in the U.S. to do so. Pressers like Curtis Godino from Brooklyn, or Daniel Huffman in Dallas have been experimenting in colored records for maybe a decade. In the 1970s, companies issued special editions of collector’s items such as a violet-colored disc for Prince’s Purple Rain, although oiled black was the industry norm (to hide potential imperfections). To be sure, color does matter. It behaves like a food additive: the more ingredients added to the vinyl, the “heavier” it is, and the worse the resulting music may sound.
Standing in the quality assurance room at Gotta Groove, admiring the multi-colored discs used as wallpaper, it’s a wonder how fanatics can ever go back to black after entering the world of multi-color.

“In some sense, it’s still a novelty,” says Matt Schura of the indie shop on Waterloo, Music Saves Records. He’s watched custom vinyl amass enthusiasts. “Sometimes it’s just more likely to drive up the price, and I don’t necessary like that. If you’re going to press it, press it. There’s a market, yeah. Then there are those who just want a record to play like a record.”

While expense is relative, many re-issued, custom-made vinyl discs often run for $20 to $25 a pop – sometimes more – which may seem hefty for vinyl newbies or upcoming bands wanting to stand out. The landscape changes when the cycle is fully local, which makes multi-color more affordable on both ends.

Ricky Hamilton, founder of Cleveland-based Quality Time Records, has been working with Wax Mage since he had Gmucs cut a seven-inch for his band Nico Missile in 2013. Hamilton, who's putting out five new Quality Time releases this October with the help of Wax Mage, believes that a record’s artistic value can actually influence the sounds coming from its grooves. In a sense, pretty art heightens musical expectations.

“If you’re buying a record just because it looks nice, that’s cool,” he says. “It can be a luxury item. A commodity. But at some point, the records are art. They’re representing what bands are. The music should, I think, match the object.”

The name Wax Mage, says Barker, aims to spark curiosity and "allude to the fact that we are doing magical things with vinyl." That's exactly what she and Gmucs intend to do as they delve into more complicated territory, such as trying to replicate a red-orange design for the rock group Mr. Gnome. Gmucs is also planning the initial stages of a full-on record label. Even a mid-June motorcycle accident, in which she nearly lost a finger, hasn't deterred her or Barker from curating new releases, messing with taboo materials and unheard-of designs. Her latest dream: a record that changes colors as it plays.

For Gmucs, visuals only matter so much. The whole production of music? Now, that’s the art.

“Maybe the guy packing boxes doesn’t feel like an artist,” she says, “but he is. There’s a Zen and a rhythm to what everyone’s doing. Me making records is just a tiny speck of the entire process. Everybody else has made the cake. Us? We’re just putting the cherry on top.”


Read more articles by Mark Oprea.

Mark Oprea is a freelance writer living in Cleveland's Little Italy. He has written for Cleveland Magazine, Kent State Magazine, and other publications. More of his work can be found on his personal website.
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