It is no walk in the park to run a record label, be in a band, self-release your material as an independent electronic musician or make a living as a visual artist. Yet, with his finger on the pulse of Vancouver's art scene, Andy Dixon has thrived by doing it all. He has released albums as a member of the Red Light Sting, Healthy Students and Winning; produced under his own name as well as The Epidemic, Caving and Secret Mommy; designed album covers and videos for the likes of Said the Whale, Library Voices and In Medias Res, and performed with countless other incarnations and collaborations in the greater Vancouver area.
In 1991, near his 12th birthday, Dixon started playing guitar in a punk band called d.b.s. alongside percussionist Paul Patko and lead singer Jesse Gander, who has since made himself quite a name as chief recording engineer at the Hive. The band did well to make itself known in the world-renowned VanCity punk scene, releasing five albums and a bunch of singles and cassettes in eight years. The final d.b.s. EP was Forget Everything You Know, also notable as being the third release on Dixon's own Ache Records.
Dixon was reluctant to start a label, but some of his friends had a band with only a cassette to their name, and he offered to press them a seven-inch single. That band was Hot Hot Heat, and they would go on to hit the charts with albums on Sub Pop and Sire, while Dixon would go on issuing groundbreaking releases through Ache Records. He put out the debut EP for Death From Above 1979, who quickly became one of Canada's most notorious and tumultuous bands, and the first recording of Vancouver tribal-electronic fusion band Basketball, as well as material by Matmos, Flössin, Four Tet, Konono Nº1 and Kid606, whose plunderphonic laptop rejection of rock ’n’ roll spectacle was a major influence on Dixon.
The evolution from the Epidemic to Secret Mommy
As he transitioned from being in bands to a solo career, Dixon grew tired of the limitations of traditional instruments. Thus, he started twisting recorded “organic” sounds and his own vocals into a project called the Epidemic. Some of the song structures were still somewhat conventional to indie rock, with distinguishable instruments and vocals, but his divergence into glitch and noise quickly took on a life of its own. After two Epidemic albums, Dixon started producing abstract found-sound manipulations under the name Secret Mommy.
Early Secret Mommy releases presented organic sounds in often-unrecognizable ways, and contained few uses of intelligible vocals. By 2004, Dixon was almost exclusively using field recordings. Secret Mommy's Hawaii 5.0 EP was made from recordings of Dixon in the 50th state. The third Secret Mommy album, 2005's Very Rec, was constructed almost entirely from the sounds of a tennis court, ice rink, public pool and other recreational places, while 2006's The Wisdom E.P. reconstituted the surgical sounds of Dixon's wisdom tooth removal into music. Similarly, The Mall from 2011 was made from the sounds of Vancouver's Pacific Centre mall, and an Ache compilation called Project: Bicycle invited a dozen different artists to submit a track using only samples of a bicycle recorded by Gander.
Dixon took a more inclusive approach for 2007's Plays, which remains the best selling and most warmly received Secret Mommy release. He booked studio time at the Hive, and invited his impressive Rolodex of musically inclined friends along for random drop-in jam sessions. The only rule was that no electrical instruments were allowed. Afterwards, Dixon refashioned his friends’ cacophony into a layered album of smooth yet quirky glitch-folk, earning praise from Pitchfork, Exclaim! and Tiny Mix Tapes for its execution.
Sadly, Plays was the last Secret Mommy album to be pressed in a physical format. The industry has undergone volatile changes in recent years, facing slumping sales and the proliferation of streaming, piracy and mixtape culture. Where Ache began by producing and licensing CDs and vinyl, all of its releases since early 2010 have been issued digitally. As artistically successful as Ache has been, the label never covered all of its own costs through physical sales. Dixon has earned most of his money through The Chemistry Designs, where he makes art, posters, T-shirts, videos and similar projects in his unique DIY style. While the label will continue online, Ache Records and Dixon's music have always been, and will remain, labours of love.