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The Triumph of Julia’s War Recordings, the Indie Rock “Antilabel” Embracing Cassette Tapes and 90s Rave Sounds

Scenes And Sounds

How the Philly-based collective is creating its own anti-cool universe filled with outmoded tech and futuristic combinations of shoegaze, indie-rock, and alternative metal.

By alphonse_f


There is a demo of “Julia”—John Lennon’s tribute to his mom and Yoko Ono—in which Lennon opens the song in Kahlil Gibran’s couplet, calls, “Ju–” and goes silent, allowing amplitude to filter in and out of each guitar pull, a face shifting in and out of focus. 

If you play that version and stare long enough at the rough sketch of a woman that makes the Julia’s War Recordings emblem, you can almost hear her singing. 

“That song always just floored me. It’s so special, melancholy, and beautiful in this way that only music can be,” says Douglas Dulgarian, frontman of They Are Gutting A Body of Water and the head of Philly-based independent label Julia’s War. “We all have a natural mother. We all come from that divine feminine. It’s comforting. Music feels like that to me.” 

As Douglas sees it, there’s a kinship between the anti-cool, all-are-welcome mentality of the British pop band that inspires the alternative scene in the city of today. Julia’s War was born, in part, from the ‘new normal’ brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic, dating back to early 2020 when Douglas took the opportunity presented by a “scientist friend who made pretty good money” to start curating bands and putting out tapes for the small fee of $200/month. When his stimulus checks started rolling in, he opted to buy his friend out and take the label into his own hands as a resource for up-and-coming musicians. 

In a music landscape that places crushing responsibility on independent artists to create, market, and network through the ever-growing network of streaming platforms and social media, Julia’s War welcomes the relative obscurity of its artists, extending Julia’s proverbial hand to all who choose to take it.

“Anybody can pick up a fucking laptop or an iPad or a Mac or whatever and start making music,” says Douglas of today’s digital-DIY space. “You could take anything from Spotify and put it onto your fucking sampler and that's it. That's yours now. You know what I mean? There's no ownership.”  

At Julia’s War, there are no execs, no commission cuts, and no contracts (outside the occasional spit-shake). Bands join when they want to, leave when they want to, and if they go on to bigger things, they always have Julia’s War to cheer them on. The label does not have a hand in streaming profits; their focus is on the physical: producing and distributing tapes, SD cards, vinyls, and t-shirts for bands. They essentially focus on merchandising, a central advocacy point in the current movement of United Musicians and Allied Workers (UMAW). 

Philly’s relationship with shoegaze already runs deep; As Eli Enis noted in a recent examination of the genre’s new wave, it’s both the “world capital” for the current revival, and it’s home to the 2010s standard-bearer, Nothing, a band that built a passionate cult following combining their hardcore roots with the genre’s wall-of-sound dynamics. Locally, they’ve given way to groups such as Blue Smiley and Knifeplay, and have at times counted Aaron Heard of Jesus Piece and Kyle Kimball of Night Sins as members. This the band is hosting a festival oriented around the history of the genre in March; the Swirlies are headlining, and TAGABOW is playing too.

TAGABOW and Wednesday, an indie rock band that has since signed with Dead Oceans, sit at the higher end of the spectrum with around a million streams on their highest-performing songs, while newer acts sometimes barely scratch 1,000. But while the new class of shoegaze artists earn millions of streams, that measure of success is not really the goal of Julia’s War, and one could argue, as Douglas often does, that Julia’s War is not a shoegaze label. Therein may lie the secret of its outsider status. Today’s music industry, which uses genre as a product to sell listeners in its ever-growing algorithm, is quick to catch nostalgic sounds in its stream, and package them to listeners as ‘subculture.’ 

But Julia’s War’s futuristic iterations of shoegaze, indie-rock, and alternative metal stay intact, perhaps because of their discordance with the genre identifiers as a prescriptive sound. Though many of its acts employ reverbed melodies and scratchy guitar, EDM, happy hardcore, and breakbeat drums make their way to the surface (just as acid house informed shoegaze innovators gone by). 

When Douglas joins our call, a piece of tape covers his webcam. His face–a loosely formed collection of colors–shifts in and out of focus across the screen.

“I just think that there's so much going on that contributes to a young person's life now that it's not like shoegaze was in the 90s with Creation Records,” Douglas says of the label’s sound. “It's not like this thing that's gonna change the world. The world has already changed. It's here,” he says, removing the tape. “We're just swimming in the possibilities that technology affords us.” 

While Julia’s War pulls influence from Creation Records bands like My Bloody Valentine and Slowdive, an apt comparison could also be made to DIY Indie-Pop label Sarah Records. The 1987-1995 label run by a group of friends made saccharine songs as tongue-in-cheek defiance of the disaffected punk acts of the era and broke the mold of what was considered ‘serious music,’ proving you didn’t need to have industry backing or be based in a major city to make music that mattered. In a hyper-masculine industry, they stayed true to the ‘divine femininity’ of their namesake, just as Julia’s War does now. 

So said the short-lived label in a self-released zine when it shut down before running the risk of going too commercial: "Sarah Records is owned by no one but us, so it's OURS to create and destroy how we want and we don't do encores. We want to burn in bright colours and go pop, to be giddy, impulsive and silly, to kiss people in new places—EXQUISITELY—and DARE to tear things apart. The first act of revolution is destruction and the first thing to destroy is the past. Scary. Like falling in love; it reminds us we're alive." 

Where Sarah Record’s bold embrace of pop was discredited by the alternative of years past, alt-scenes today play with pop aesthetics and iconography in search of a sense of belonging. Under the twice-baked irony of online existence is a genuine search for meaningful connection, the desire to be a part of something. 

This is perhaps best illustrated through the vaporwave aesthetics and animation pulled from Miramar’s Mind’s Eye film series that makes the music video accompanying They Are Gutting A Body of Water’s “ES Beautyhand.” Impossible to pin to a single genre, the song unfolds in a queasy cacophony of influence, a panicked assemblage of sounds hoping for wholeness. As a drenched harp sample and incisive reggaeton drum from the quote-unquote “shoegaze” band stutter their listener into submission, internet nonsense flashes across a neon screen in a free association fever dream. But beneath its deep web-steeped aesthetics is a sincere desire to be known, and to belong.

Known to perform with his back turned to the audience in TAGABOW, Douglas has made a point of turning his back on the music industry machine. Running the label alongside friends John McSweden and Emily Lofing, Douglas wants as little to do with it as possible, rather allowing artists autonomy and serving as a resource and point of connection. Douglas makes tapes, SD cards and the occasional 7-inch, and hosts house shows and Twitch streams for upcoming bands, but for those that sometimes don’t sell as many as ten tapes or hit over 1,000 streams, breaking even can be a stretch.

“If I break even, I’m chilling. But that doesn’t really happen too frequently,” he tells me. “People have tried over time to be like, dude you could try to turn a profit, but I can’t. That’s just the way I’ve been doing it.”

But that’s not why he’s doing it either. Though the music is not political, Julia’s War has produced compilations devoted to pro-choice organizations like the Haven Coalition or substance abuse disorder treatment like the Savage Sisters—both of which speak directly to current events and the lived experiences of Julia’s War signees—and a co-release to Stop Cop City, but the central function of Julia’s War is the community. Though based in Philly, Julia’s War bands span the country from Seattle to Florida, and it’s not a singularly occurring phenomenon. Cities are practically bursting at the seams with alt-kids with music aspirations. The Julia’s War extended family includes the likes of Candlepin in Boston and Atlanta’s Rope Bridge Records or Albany’s Beeside Cassettes. Julia’s War is the unspoken connective tissue that ties bands like World’s Worst and Full Body 2 to feeble little horse, or Horse Jumper of Love’s John Margaris’ side project, Community College. 


“This is literally just like a family of people that I just love and respect their music. That’s kind of the model with it,” says Douglas. “The first rule of it is do I know you? Like are you cool? Are you a good person? I would rather make a tape for somebody that I love and respect as a person instead of some shit that I’m just like ‘Yo, this is hot.’ You know what I mean?”

Downstream from the ‘Zoomergaze’ phenomenon defined by acts like Julie, or Jane Remover, Julia’s War pulls as much influence from Vektroid and vaporwave as it does Primal Scream. Songwriters like Melaina Kol inject acoustic guitar with breakbeat drums while paying tribute to Iron Maiden. Glixen does digicore dream pop, and Ruth in the Bardo pioneers southern baptist transcore.

The resulting sound is all at once abrasive and vulnerable, tempting and timid. A reminder of the legacy of free expression in independent music, Julia’s War makes music without an audience in mind. But for those who stumble upon this anachronistic pocket of the music industry, all are welcomed with open arms.

“The ‘war’ is the war we fight with ourselves to feel a part of this thing that is our birthright to feel a part of, but individualism alienates and separates us from it,” says Douglas. “The war is the constant battle to feel like we’re worth anything at all.”

Wedneday & MJ Lenderman - “My Voice is a Little Horse” 

If prayer is whatever you say on your knees, then Guttering is a salivating sermon. The first record put out by Julia’s War, The six-track EP is dazzling and dirty, a candy wrapper catching light under layers of wet soil. “My Voice is A Little Horse” may be more straightforward indie than what’s to come on Julia’s War, but it sketches the fugue femininity that characterizes the label. On this sticky trailer park song, Wednesday’s Karly Hartzman goes spinning under the intoxicating twang of the lead guitar, with MJ Lenderman’s pedal in tow. Winning in its wobbly optimism, “My Voice is A Little Horse” isn’t easily broken. 

feeble little horse - “Dog Song 2”

A distorted anthem to acts of degradation, this toxic love song is a culminating project that started with the Stooges, found a temporary home in feeble little horse’s predecessor Loser Pointer, and came to its bodily fluid-filled finale in Dog Song 2. While v2 loses some of the intoxicating nonchalance of its earlier version, feeble little horse’s iteration toes the line between coy and cutting. I’ve never sung “I just let you piss on me” so wholeheartedly. 

Coin Boy - Hooky

A hook-forward band that proves the “shoegaze” misnomer of the Julia’s War sound, Hooky is what it sounds like. Samples stick to the roof of your mouth like well-chewed gum while punchy drum kits and wet production smack and pop. All at once nostalgic and optimistic, Hooky’s bubbly sound sticks like a piece of chewed up gum on the bottom of a shoe, kicking coins across the concrete.

ECHOTRACER - “EPCOT RACER (“stopping threshold” strange ranger REMIX”)”

What starts as a punched-up reimagining of fellow indie-great Strange Ranger’s synthy nostalgia soundbite “Stopping Threshold” quickly devolves into a no-holds-barred techno track. Throwaways from a legendary FullBody2 x TAGABOW DJ set gain new life on a Julia’s War 7-track LP after a canceled rave tour with TAGABOW’s Douglas and FullBody2’s Jack as ECHOTRACER with a nod to the 2021 Full Body 2, TAGABOW split. Proof of concept for the expanse of music influence across Julia’s War’s discography and what it sounds like when the restraints of indie rock are released. 

Her New Knife - “Mouth”

When I got my braces taken off, my doctor ripped the metal off so violently, I bled the whole car ride home. No anesthesia. That taste of syrupy steel is almost as sweet as Her New Knife’s soft-sung melodies. Between thrashing bouts of guitar, each lyric cuts deeper than the last—a tenderly administered incision. This lip-biting, tooth-grinding, blood-spilling experience hails from a long lineage of oral fixations in alternative metal. As its chanted bridge recalls brutalist imagery, the band’s mouthpiece, Edgar Atencio’s, near-whispered vocals cut through wire to reveal a sedated, gauzy smile. Bite down to stop the bleeding.

Ruth in the Bardo - “Hole in the Sun”

Ruth in the Bardo’s southern baptist transcore shuffles through bouts of angst, acceptance and existentialism across the 8-track EP Ars Poetica. Lifting samples from testimonies against Anti-Trans bills, Hole in the Sun is a crucial song for this generation. Employing marks of Julia’s War influence having spent the last few years in Philly. Best described in the band’s own words “all brittle and broken” a tender guitar twang descends into scratched-out delirium at the song’s close. Destruction as a form of discovery, songs sung as if spoken to a broken mirror.

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