After COVID and turmoil, a female-led indie label reemerges

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The artists on the venerable L.A. heavy-rock label Sargent House are known for their clamor. But over the course of the pandemic, they learned to appreciate total quiet as well.

“We had been looking for properties to build a studio, where artists can write and chill, and kept not having any luck in L.A.,” said Cathy Pellow, who founded the label from her hilltop home in Echo Park in 2006. Pellow sold the house and moved the label into a rambling compound in Sunland-Tujunga in 2016, and although it took some time and savings to build out (the label is “100% self-financed and has never had any investors,” Pellow said), by 2020 Sargent House had “this magical, insane place that’s six acres on a mountain, a huge converted barn and a pool, guest bungalows, gorgeous gardens and the backyard is mountains.”

It was a perfect COVID-19 hideout. The label’s roster of metal and experimental acts like Chelsea Wolfe, Deafheaven, Emma Ruth Rundle and Lingua Ignota could come up for fresh air. After 15 years of championing the harshest fringes in rock, the label found its stride at this bucolic haven, where the wildest noises were the howls of Pellow’s seven dogs.

A female musician with tattoos holds a electric guitar.

Sargent House recording artist Chelsea Wolfe.

(Total Guitar magazine / Future via Getty Images)

As touring returns after Omicron, Sargent House’s acts, whose visceral live performances are a huge part of their appeal, are coming back to a different scene. The experiences documented in their music — isolation, fear and rage — are all the more tangible after two years of the world falling apart.

Then this staunchly progressive label had to reckon with abuse allegations in its close-knit community as well.

“The news was a traumatic experience every day,” Pellow said, describing the last two years. “It was mentally exhausting to live through all that. It affected us all. But in a strange way, there were silver linings for lot of people.”

Even from the label’s new exurban redoubt, Pellow remains every bit the cool Echo Park music mom (she has an adult daughter who works in the film industry). In her 20s, she managed fashion photographers in New York and moved into film production and making music videos for Island and Atlantic Records acts. She started Sargent House in 2006, jaundiced about both major labels and independents where artists signed away copyrights for near nothing. “I got so sick of looking at these terrible deals,” Pellow said.

She and business partner Marc Jetton didn’t explicitly create a label for women in extreme music. But Sargent House and its four-person staff ended up being an important home for them.

“I came up in music as a single mom, so I gravitated to working with female artists and have a pretty unique idea of what it’s like to be a woman in that very male world,” Pellow said. “It takes extra effort. It’s always going to be tough to put out heavy bands with no red state appeal because we’re not bro-rock.”

The kind of acts she wanted to champion — too heavy or weird for mainstream rock, too songwriter-y for much of the metal circuit — didn’t fit into easy niches or harbor clear commercial appeal. But for artists like the L.A.-based Wolfe, who could be savagely heavy but had ambitions to do more, it was the only place to be.

“Sargent House helped me to embrace both my weirder side and my more traditional songwriter side,” Wolfe said. “To honor both and not feel like I have to be only one way or another.”

A woman and a man sit in front of a drum kit

Cathy Pellow and business partner Mark Jetton.

(Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)

2021, for all its grief, was a banner year for the label creatively. Its flagship black-metal/shoegaze act Deafheaven broadened into somber, precisely sung rock on “Infinite Granite” that recalibrated the band’s place in metal. Wolfe teamed with metal/hardcore veterans Converge for the textured, compellingly moody LP “Bloodmoon: I,“ and the label produced a concert-length film with the Michigan noise-punk collective the Armed that’s a complete inversion of a traditional tour documentary — no audiences, for starters.

Ignota, the alias of SoCal-raised composer Kristin Hayter, left behind much of her harrowing noise in favor of doom-stricken Appalachian folk arrangements on “Sinner Get Ready.” (She headlines the Regent Theater on June 9.)

“Everyone had a moment to get real with what they needed to say, and a lot of them said, ‘I’m going to use my quiet voice now,’” Pellow said.

Laina Dawes, a metal scholar in a doctoral program at Columbia University and author of “What Are You Doing Here? A Black Woman’s Life and Liberation in Heavy Metal,” is a fan of many Sargent House acts like Earth, Chelsea Wolfe and Russian Circles. She describes the label as “a really well curated home for these post-metal or experimental metal acts, which is a pretty new phenomenon. A lot of these acts needed a home like this.”

Dawes said a few of the marquee acts “fit an archetype of a certain kind of femininity” but added that “one of the issues with metal-adjacent music are these preconceived notions around tropes of who is a metal artist. Younger generations of underground fans want to see way more diversity.”

Like many underground labels, the Sargent House roster often makes more money on vinyl than streaming. The label’s biggest hits typically peak under 10 million Spotify plays. “When your lead single is nine minutes long, it’s tough to get playlisted,” Pellow said with a shrug.

But keeping those bands afloat during the last two years sometimes meant, quite literally, intervening to keep them moving.

“In my particular case, I suddenly needed spine surgery I couldn’t pay for because I had no insurance and all my touring fell through,” Hayter said. “Cathy took the helm of a campaign that raised money for my surgery through my fan base. I’m not exaggerating when I say I probably wouldn’t be walking today if this hadn’t happened.”

“Sargent House made the choice to stay really positive and supportive, especially at the beginning of COVID when many people went into crisis mode,” Wolfe said. “Cathy was securing loans to help some of her artists and pointing us all in the right direction to help ourselves and others stay afloat.”

While the label soldiered on in its compound, hope was sometimes hard to keep up. Whenever she’d revisit her old Echo Park haunts, Pellow wondered what kind of scene would be left standing when the pandemic ended.

The class divides of L.A. arts and music, which already helped nudge them out of town, became more palpable.

“It’s actually a real problem because I want to be hiring,” Pellow said. “But now young people can’t afford to live here.”

But the most unsettling moment of the last few years came at the end of 2021, when Hayter accused her former romantic partner and Sargent House labelmate Alexis S. F. Marshall, the singer for the longtime noise-rock band Daughters, of sexual and physical abuse.

In December, Hayter released a long public note across social media stating that “I endured mental and emotional abuse and sexual abuse resulting in bodily harm. … I was subjected to multiple sexual assaults/rapes where I was fully penetrated while sleeping without my consent.” Hayter said in the post that the experience drove her to attempt suicide. (Reached again this month, she referred back to her earlier statement.)

Marshall, reached through a former representative, declined to comment. In a December statement, Marshall said that “I absolutely did not engage in any form of abusive behavior towards Kristin. … I can assure anyone reading this that I absolutely did not abuse her, mentally or physically.”

In December, Sargent House said that “We ceased working with Alexis Marshall back in August. We made no public statement at that time because we wanted to respect Kristin’s privacy and her timeline for when she felt ready to come forward. She has now and we continue to stand in solidarity with her.”

The allegations shook the close-knit label, which prided itself as a haven for female acts in a heavy rock scene coming to terms with abuse.

“The situation that occurred between them affected me on so many levels,” Pellow said after months of helping Hayter behind the scenes in her decision to come forward. “It emotionally destroyed me and I find it very difficult to comment on it still. I don’t condone abuse of any kind.”

Dawes said extreme-music labels don’t always respond so forcefully to allegations of misconduct in their midst. “Metal labels can sometimes be terrible for this. There can be an emphasis on the music itself where anything else like sexism or assault or racism gets dismissed,” she said.

After the shock of the allegations against Marshall, there’s an urgency to chart the next era for the label. Film scores might be one way — Wolfe and Ben Chisholm co-scored Ti West’s new A24 horror movie “X” out this month, and Rundle scored Riley Stearns’ sci-fi film “Dual” (starring Karen Gillan and Aaron Paul) out later this year.

“When we started, we just wanted to protect underdog bands,” Pellow said. “Now I want to make the stuff I like more popular, for young people to see it in their own state of rebellion. 2022 is going to be our heavy year.”

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