Setting up a record store is always a personal risk, but setting up a new store in the second half of 2020 certainly carries a different weight. YUKU, located in Prague, fell foul of the pandemic just as they planned to open doors, but through a considerable amount of personal endeavour throughout the rather lengthy lockdown in the Czech Republic, the store has been able to open to customers.
A significant reason for this is the store’s in-house record label of the same name, which has been releasing diverse and regularly surprising records throughout the period of closure, from LP’s from MachineCode to the recent EP from Belgrade’s Traka, featuring a vocal cut with Grime MC Killa P.
All of their releases demonstrate a particular dedication to the visual design, from shocking, granular-detailed imagery to clean-cut abstract art. The majority of the records are coloured vinyl, housed within sleeves that mimic or develop on the outer designs, and crammed full of tracks: with all this, YUKU aim to showcase the artist’s work in the best presentation possible, something for the artists just as much as the fans.
A fairly impressive debut, then, for a team consisting of just one couple. We caught up with owners Ilda and Jef to talk shop, from their circle of dedicated supporters, to sourcing the designs on the sleeves, and what the space has in store for Prague this coming year.
Interview by Freddie Hudson
"YUKU is about exploring and enjoying all kinds of art and celebrating creativity"
Let’s start off with the basics – you’ve recently opened your store in Prague, labelling YUKU an experience store, what does this mean?
We intend it to be a place where people can comfortably listen to and explore new music, as well as different kinds of art, such as our selection of prints, art, books, and zines. We’ve carefully curated everything in the space to be stimulating and unusual, and also to reflect the spirit of the music that we’re releasing ourselves. It’s also a space for intimate performances and interactive events, such as audio and visual live jams.
We made sure that the turntables and headphones for the listening stations are audiophile-grade equipment from Meze Audio and Audio-Technica – we want visitors to be able to hear the music in the best possible way, particularly because many of the records carry music that they will be hearing for the first time. So it’s more than just a store, we see it as a social hub for people to come and experience the vein of creativity and creators that interest us.
The focus on the projections and visual aspect of the space also make the atmosphere very specific, particularly at night. We have literature that’s not for sale, but next to the couch, so people can come and have a coffee and relax, listen to some unique music, and look at pretty things. We consider it to be an exploration space.
You’ve got quite an extensive range of YUKU merchandise – why do you see it as an important thing to offer more than just vinyl to customers?
Curating YUKU is more than selecting music for us, but also selecting creators working in different mediums, whether it be jewellery, clothing, or other formats. While we have some fun designing the various logos for YUKU and experimenting with colours, we prefer to work with seasoned and upcoming designers to collaborate with, and work together with them to come to a meeting point of ideas.
Tomáš Holub is the first independent Czech designer we have collaborated with, and we’re preparing to work with a wider range of independent creators. In this way, we hope to build a collaborative vision of art that can be worn and interacted with. It’s also really important for us to use only ethically sourced garments in this process. We do this because YUKU is about exploring and enjoying all kinds of art, and celebrating creativity.
How has it been opening a store during the pandemic? Do you have any advice for opportunity-seekers thinking similar things to you?
It’s definitely been a challenge, particularly because of the uncertainty of how long it will continue to affect us. That we had never opened a space before also meant that we needed to learn a lot of new things, and still continue to readjust and tweak the space itself.
Mostly, we’ve used this time to plan and make it the best it can be, and figure out our systems with distributors and the records and books we’re selling. We felt that it was important to open this space in these times because people have been stuck for so long, and we wanted to create an environment where people can come and interact with art and discover new experiences and ideas.
Our advice to people thinking about starting something similar is that if you think it’s a good idea and feel strongly about it, then go for it, because the world needs more spaces like this that we can all enjoy.
Prague is not without its existing vinyl retailers. How is YUKU different from the rest?
Prague does have some great stores, some older, some more recent, and they are unique in different ways. Some are more specific with their selection, and others have a wider range of records and genres. We would say that YUKU is somehow both specific, because it reflects our specific tastes, and it’s built around our record label at the same time, but it’s also quite broad, because we cover a wide range of tempos and aesthetics.
The space itself is quite elegant, but also cosy – a place where it’s quite easy to feel at home, but at the same time has the feeling of being a small gallery because of the art on its walls. Having a public space that is connected to the label means that people can come and interact with us anytime, and even listen to the test presses of our upcoming releases, and in future, come and join a small group of listeners to hear the artists we work with play their music in the store.
The focus on projection and lighting also means that the mood is different each day, and reflects our own moods and the feeling of the different music that’s being played. People will soon be able to click the ‘live from the store’ button on our website and tune into what we’re listening to, and see what’s happening in the space, so the shop will also function as something like a radio.
Tell us about your subscription model – this is something quite different to the way a lot of labels operate. Why are you pursuing this model?
We feel that smaller, more dedicated audiences and listeners are the future, rather than trying to reach everyone in the world. This is connected to our philosophy that people are overstimulated with the constant flow of creations that are injected into the world coming through easy-to-consume platforms such as streaming services.
The volume of creativity isn’t a bad thing – it’s great in fact, but the mediums via which it’s communicated have created a listening environment where people tend to flick through things, skip things, and not create deeper listening relationships with releases. That’s fine, and we’re not complaining, but we wanted to present an alternative, where the listening experience is revered and special, and we feel that smaller listening groups are best to achieve this.
"There’s a rich and connective history in electronic music and there are brilliant creators in every genre. We try to illustrate how we think all these genres can fit together in our YUKU Label Dives"
We release everything on vinyl, and it takes time to manufacture, but the digital masters and artwork are ready at the beginning of that manufacturing process. So, rather than delay the entire release until the vinyl is ready, we prefer to release the music early to our small group of dedicated listeners, the YUKRU subscribers. They then have 6 months in which to enjoy the music exclusively while we prepare everything else necessary for the physical release. At the end of those 6 months, when we have the vinyl, the music goes out to the entire world.
The YUKRU are very special to us, because while anyone can apply, we interview each of them to make sure that it’s something that they want to be a part of, and that they are curious enough to listen to new music without knowing in advance what it is – they are listeners who like to be surprised. We also have a private chat with all the YUKRU, where they can interact with each other directly, as well as the artists and us. It’s a warm and welcoming environment where all kinds of things are discussed, and new music and art is shared.
We take great care on presenting the records when they arrive in the mail, particularly for the 1st 50 purchasers of our records, who receive stickers, prints of the artwork (with the 1st 50 often being signed personally by the releasing musicians), in wrapping that colour matches the records.
How do you think this has impacted your everyday business? Has it given you added security?
It has definitely made a dent in our manufacturing costs, which are pretty high since we’re releasing one or two records per month, and we’re just two people doing this for the love of it. In the first year especially, where the records didn’t start hitting their worldwide release dates until August, and in which we lost the ability to act as an agency as we had originally planned because of Covid, the YUKRU essentially acted as backers to our concept.
It has been amazing really, because these lovely people supported us without having ever received anything from us in the beginning, which is a leap of faith in many ways, and one that has made us extremely committed to delivering them the best quality music and artwork that we can.
Looking at the label’s output, it is clear that there is a huge level of care given to the layout, and to the presentation of the musicians work. Why do you choose this route for your releases, rather than going for simplistic layouts?
Thanks! Yes, this is an essential part of our concept, because we see creating vinyl as more than creating a medium to carry the audio; it’s about creating a work of art that will sit proudly in listeners’ collections.
Rather than trying to hammer every concept into a constant brand aesthetic, we prefer YUKU to be a concept that continuously evolves and surprises, and part of this is considering each release to be its own unique world, and to build individual concepts around them, allowing the artists to express their vision.
We join the dots and, where necessary, connect the musicians with other creators that can manifest their visions. We try not to cut any corners in the process of doing this, so that the end result is as special as it can be, and makes a bold statement.
There’s also a level of unorthodoxy in your catalogue, from EPs with double the standard amount of music, to somewhat skewed release schedules. It’s also clear this is all very intentional. What is the reason behind your label’s various quirks?
To be honest, those quirks are probably just the result of us trying to build the concept from scratch, and ignore the ‘done way of things’. Possibly the most unorthodox thing is the music selection itself, which is constantly evolving and — we hope — a little bit unpredictable. We think that the people who will like it all are probably quite rare, but what we hope is that, regardless of the genre, the quality of the producers’ work and the art that accompanies it is consistent.
People who enjoy a large range of the music in our record store will probably enjoy what we release on our own label. For us, the most important thing about the music that we release is that it should make us feel something and be unique. So we’ll happily release 130 bpm club music, halftime, hybrid bass, techno, ambient, IDM, jungle and other forms of bass music, and beyond. To us, it all somehow fits together — there’s a rich and connective history in electronic music and there are brilliant creators in every genre. We try to illustrate how we think all these genres can fit together in our YUKU Label Dives.
Can you give us any spoilers of things to look forward to in the coming year?
Definitely plenty of in-store guest DJs — we’re really keen to provide a space for forms of music that don’t have an obvious outlet in Prague, particularly. Exhibitions from visual artists we love, including Dutch painter Niels Weerheim, whose small exhibition we’re launching in-store in July, and Chilean artist Payo Sanf, whose work we’ll be welcoming into the space at the end of summer.
We’re also continuing our multi-genre YUTOPIA events that we started in the HOL space last year, and will continue with in various locations around Prague in the future, including regular events on the terrace of CIRKUS in Karlin (the first one is July 24), and another event to come soon, held on a boat.
Finally, can you give us some picks from your stock that fit your sound aesthetic well?
Bab – Aïdour [Crowdspacer] – a perfect fusion of Algerian folk music and modern electronic concepts that tells a rich story.
Guedra Guedra = Vexillology [On The Corner] — a rich and wonderful exploration of multiple genres through Moroccan ears. One of the records that we almost always reach for when we open, and from an amazing label.
Joaquin Cornejo – Las Frutas EP [Earthly Measures] — its beautifully illustrated cover and the wonderful range of music the record holds makes this a must for us. Weaving between various genres, the organic sounds of this brilliant young producer from Ecuador elicit excitement and inspiration. We particularly love the Latin American-flavoured footwork of Eso with Gotopo’s silky sexy vocal.
SONIC – The Eye of Jupiter [Social Sneaker Club] — One of our earliest records in the store that we just keep restocking, because the breakbeat variations it holds are just so sick and dynamic. Sonic has an incredible soft edge to his production that’s understated but still perfect for the dance. Social Sneaker Club is also just an incredibly consistent and excellent label.
Fearful x Mtwn – Exordium [YUKU] — a recent addition to our own label, this record just turned out so stunning with its edgy modular sound design and dipping between garage-influenced genre explorations, as well as the artwork by legend of experimental architecture Bryan Cantley. Even the vinyl with its beautiful transparent pink colour is just endlessly pleasing to pull from the sleeve.
Photography by Jonáš Verešpej
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