Off the Record: Interview with Joel Leshefka of Cairo Records

Aimee Butterworth and Joel Leshefka co-run local Seattle art space Cairo, located on Capitol Hill. With a focus on live music, vintage, silkscreening, and visual art, it seemed only natural for Cairo’s eclectic brand to branch into music production. Since the inception its record label, Cairo Records has released numerous compilations, 7 inches, and LPs, while simultaneously hosting weekly music shows and seasonal music festivals.

I recently interviewed Joel on what it’s like to co-run Seattle’s “tiniest empire”, and what makes Seattle the perfect nest in which to hatch a small independent record label. As a native Pacific Northwesterner, Joel has an inherent understanding of the independent arts scene that he is immersed in: “Those of us trying to create and build now have the benefit of this network that has always existed in Seattle, and continues to grow.  When I was a kid, it was clubs like The Velvet Elvis, and The Showoff Gallery, labels like C/Z, Esturus, SubPop, K Records, Kill Rock Stars, and record stores like Fallout and Orpheum.  They built what universities like to call “Institutional Memory”, and whether we know it or not, a lot of us are learning and growing from their legacies.”

Many thanks to Joel for the words. Continue below to see the full interview.


photo by Krysta Jabczenski


What was the impetus for starting Cairo records?

The label started like many things start at Cairo, in that there was a perceived gap that seemed appropriate for Cairo to help fill.  We had been hosting shows from the days of being a “gallery only” space, and a few people including Robin Stein, had approached us about parlaying some of the energy and positive vibes being manifested as a music space, into a record label.  With Robin on board, Aimee (Butterworth, co-owner of Cairo) and I felt like it was a good fit.  Cairo has always existed to help promote new and interesting artists of all genres within Seattle, with the hope that such a platform will assist in propelling those artists more regionally, and even nationally.

What is your production/distribution process?

We’ve focused on the northwest thus far for distribution…most of the bands we work with haven’t even done a full US tour, so the idea of trying to push this stuff nationally is a little difficult at this point.  The goal is to continue to release strong compelling music, working with like-minded bands in an effort to increase the potential of spreading and growing what we believe to be the “Seattle sound” further and further into the ether.  To do this is a symbiotic relationship, it takes effort, and time to grow something that can truly last.  When we first started, I think we wanted everything to happen right away, but lately it’s been really satisfying to understand it as an organic process, and one that starts from the same small solid 900 square foot home base that is Cairo, and grows as the artists and individuals grow around and with it.

What makes this record label specifically “northwest”?

We really believe the northwest isn’t as known as it should be for creating interesting, slightly more experimental sounds.  So much good happens here, and much of it goes un-noticed by the national press.  I’m always quite amazed and perplexed by what ends up being touted on the big national music blogs from the northwest.  Not that those bands and artists showcased are not worthy, quite the opposite, but that so many artists and musicians are missed in that process.  Part of that comes from being geographically isolated, but part of that is I think the nature of the “northwest”.  We are a DIY type of scene, always have been.  I think Cairo follows in the footsteps of some incredible models for northwest labels; we are just doing whatever we want, and not worrying about whether it’s “the right thing to do”. But we are still hoping that people are paying attention to what we are curating, and find the same satisfaction and pride in what gets created in this infernally dark and dank place.  To do so does feel very “northwest” to me; it’s almost in the absence of national attention that truly incredible and unique art can be created.

What is your favorite record of all time?

Wow.  Can anyone answer that question??  Can I answer in 3 ways?  The first album that inspired me to think differently about music:  Treepeople’s Something Vicious for Tomorrow/Time Whore LP (C/Z records).  I heard Treepeople (Doug Martsch pre-Built to Spill) on KUGS 89.3 in Bellingham while I was in middle school and it changed my music preferences for life.  The album that will forever be in rotation: is likely Milk Music’s EP, Beyond Living…that might sound nuts to say, but I haven’t stopped listening to it since it was released two years ago, and I don’t think I will…. also anything by Brian Eno or Arthur Russell rates pretty high.  Nirvana’s Nevermind….people love to hate on this album, but all I can think of is riding the city bus home as a kid in the middle of a snow storm, listening to that album on tape over and over again. The album I wish Cairo could have released: Wet Paint DMM.  Those guys weren’t around long enough, and made me fall in love with music all over again, a full length from them would have been amazing…

How do you decide what bands to work with?

It’s usually a really natural extension of the show space.  Ian Judd has been killing it since he took over booking about two years ago.  The Cairo Tape Club is a series of live shows recorded at Cairo, and was pitched by Ian and Dylan Wall (who records and masters all the tracks).  It was a “no brainer” to start producing this series. We felt like the space was capturing all this great live energy, and showcasing interesting young bands. The series is allowing us to experiment with placing more nationally known artists (Mark McGuire, White Rainbow, King Dude) with artists just starting out, or for whatever reason haven’t gotten a ton of attention…placing them on the same platform.  We believe them to be equal, or complimentary artists, and we hope through the series, others will pick up on that too.

In short, if you end up on a Cairo release, it’s probably because you are hanging out at Cairo a bunch.  We are very much about building and participating in good communities.

Do you let the musicians choose the album art, or does the label have control?

Usually they do, unless it’s a compilation, which actually I guess is most of our releases at this point… for the Flexions album we asked Strath Shepard at Land Management to build us an interesting template, and we asked Flexions to pick the back and front photographs.  It turned out gorgeous; we were super psyched!

Why is Seattle a good place to run a record label?

I think for a lot of the reasons already mentioned. Seattle probably has more musicians per square inch in this city than almost anywhere in the US, save for the obligatory NYC reference.  Beyond talented artists though, Seattle has built a strong support system.  There are tons of places for people to play in this city right now…from large bars, to small bars, to all-ages spaces, art spaces, secret places, and house shows. People really come out for music here; it’s a source of city pride. This piece of the puzzle is important when you start thinking about a record label, which records, produces, and ultimately to sells it to people.  It doesn’t happen in a vacuum, nobody is making bedroom music (solo/alone), and sending it to record labels in LA, or SF, they are out, playing shows, engaging people, building and honing their sound, then taking the time to record and release it.  Once it’s released, it lands in one of the many amazing independent record stores Seattle has: from the super small and select Wall of Sound, to the larger stores like Sonic Boom & Easy Street Records—they are all very interested in supporting and cultivating not just “music” in Seattle, but really “good, interesting, unique music”.  All of these things have to work together to create what we have in Seattle, which is a really rad, positive scene. It’s a network, and no one part exists without the others, they all work in unison.

What is next for Cairo Records?

Laser Discs.

Stop by Cairo at 507 E Mercer, check out their blog, and keep your eyes peeled for their next release!

Signing off,

Olivia Olive

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