Luke Rocha, the local artist and music producer, recently passed us a vintage-looking CD called Karen Zinc and the Silver Recovery Presents the World Today. The cover is a composite of old photographs, yellowed and faded, of clean-cut children playing acoustic instruments. The album itself contains spoken testimonials of faith layered over harpsichords, kazoos and funky horn breaks. The sounds are primitive, spiritual and deeply strange, like a Sunday-school class all stoned on the Holy Spirit.
Where could those kids have learned to make such loopy, futuristic music? Who is, or was, Karen Zinc? A closer look at the cover revealed a tiny logo of a smiling cat near the bottom that says, "Magic Cat Records, a subsidiary of Symbol Heavy." But it still wasn't clear: Was this a reissue of some private-press gospel record from the 1970s? or new material from Rocha? or both? or ... what?
"There's a whole story behind it," the soft-spoken Rocha says.
With Symbol Heavy projects, it seems that there always is.
Rocha founded Symbol Heavy, a record label and artist collective, about a decade ago, with fellow producer Boyd Pro. The idea was to release music and showcase the talents of friends such as rapper Brother of Moses and DJ Beatbroker, whose collaborative The Forward Look 12-inch was the label's first release. Symbol Heavy also put out instrumental albums by Rocha (under the name Topp Boom) and Pro, as well as Dragon Tears, a synth-driven bedroom-recording project by Rocha's younger brother, Patrick.
In addition to these certifiably flesh-and-blood musicians, Symbol Heavy's roster contains a wide range of mysterious musical personas, many of whom happen to have sprung from Rocha's mind. Each Symbol Heavy release is enhanced by artwork, zines and music videos, which open up new avenues for these thematic impulses. A tempting comparison for Rocha's approach is the work of Portuguese author Fernando Pessoa, who created different names, styles and elaborate biographies for each of his literary personas.
But Rocha says his projects are less extensions of his own musical ego than a means of breathing new life into marginalized genres like disco or gospel. (A recent Topp Boom mix, for example, is built around recordings and promos for 1980s sex hotlines.)
"It's never been about Luke Rocha, which is why I create these different aliases," Rocha says. "They're all art projects to me. I'm still trying to discover older shit, trying to resurrect some of these artists before they die out."
Patrick Rocha compares his brother's meticulously researched projects with the extensive notes that Stanley Kubrick amassed in preparation for each of his films. "Luke has copious amounts of material to inspire the music and music to inspire the material," he says. "We get inspired by just looking through his catalog."
Like fellow Kansas City producer and InnateSounds founder Miles Bonny, the Symbol Heavy crew takes a workmanlike approach to making music, steadily releasing new projects, sampling from a wide variety of sources and collaborating with fellow artists. Pro, whose woozy tape loops, VHS transfers and electro-funk recordings are a Symbol Heavy staple, says it's the variety and willingness to experiment that hold the collective together.
"All of our influences and aesthetics are different, but they all fit together well," says Pro, who now lives in Seattle, where he maintains the label's website. "When I get demos or drafts from Luke or Pat or anybody else, I'm pretty pumped to find out what might be on there. It could be anything, but whatever it is, it's going to be pretty bonkers."
Which brings us back to Karen Zinc and the Silver Recovery. When we caught up with Rocha again, he allowed that Zinc is a fictional character, and the Silver Recovery is the name of her imaginary backing band. The record — a free-form sound collage of old gospel recordings, youth religion summits, and French children's albums — is a Rocha joint from top to bottom. (It's not yet available on the Symbol Heavy website, and Rocha says he's not sure when he'll release it, though probably sometime in the next couple of months.) He also revealed the cover of another unreleased album, this one by a group called Magic Wanda and the Crystal Balls. Rocha described them as a sleazy disco group with a feminist, spoken-word element, and he spoke of them as if they inhabited the corporeal world. Presumably Wanda and her pals are just another of Symbol Heavy's elaborately researched, carefully cultivated musical collages. But in a way, you always kind of wonder.
Up to this point, Symbol Heavy has lacked the kind of flagship artist that could carry the label to audiences outside the underground. But that could change with Electric Indian, a late-2012 release by Your Reflection that has been building a buzz online among fans of psych, experimental and electronic music.