Label of the Month: ESP Institute
Label of the Month: ESP InstituteJuly 7, 2020
Over the past decade, LA-based ESP Institute has taken its mission of pushing musical boundaries with the utmost sincerity. Cameron Holbrook speaks with founder Lovefingers to learn its history.
Whoever still believes the archaic idea that “disco is dead” clearly hasn’t met Andrew Hogge, AKA Lovefingers. He’s known as a renowned music specialist whose crate-digging bonafides have become the stuff of legend. And his sonic palate and relentless quest for enthralling, often-forgotten sounds go far beyond your typical selector. Along with his stockpile of secret weapons and “anything goes” attitude behind the decks, Lovefingers has consistently stunned chin strokers, dancefloor voyagers, and wavy home listeners alike.
While his fondness for killer disco grooves has always been a strong selling point for Hogge’s tastemaking reputation, it would be misguided to pigeonhole him. For the past decade, his label ESP Institute has ceaselessly pushed the envelope, offering a catalog of exceptional, innovative, and sometimes challenging records that reflect an endless admiration musical adventure.
Dialing in from his home in sunny Los Angeles, Hogge appears on screen with an array of random objects suspended on his virtual background. With various fruits, feathers, statues, and household items floating above his head, the conversation cuts straight to current events. The ongoing pandemic, racial injustice, police brutality, and overwhelming feelings of uncertainty are the first things on our minds. Characteristically showing as much passion for fighting injustice as he does for his music, Hogge tells us about the various charitable projects he’s involved himself in recent months.
Recently, the collective Commonwealth Projects where he is a lead artist, contributed in organizing a campaign with South LA activists Crenshaw Subway Coalition to stop the sale of LA’s oldest shopping centre, the Crenshaw Mall, to one of the country’s largest gentrifying real-estate developers. Instead, the coalition’s Downtown Crenshaw project now proposes a historic effort to buy and redevelop the mall, by and for the community itself. At the onset of the Black Lives Matter protests following the death of George Floyd, Commonwealth’s clothing project Total Luxury Spa also managed to raise (through people power and without selling a product) over $110,000 in direct donations to three non-profit organizations in South LA’s historic Black community: The Umoja Center, The World Stage, and Summaeverythang.
“There is a real-world application to what’s going on right now, and the easiest place to do that is in your own backyard,” Hogge says.
Despite ESP’s widespread acclaim, Hogge has always kept a day job to pay the bills and help fund the label. He’s also a father, and a designer by trade, having worked his way up from small t-shirt companies to art director of numerous clothing brands. It was the same time he was studying graphic design at Cal Arts that his DJing ambitions started. With his buddy Tim Koh — LA scene veteran and former bassist for Ariel Pink — Hogge first started DJing at their art school parties. Eventually, he became fully invested in mastering the ones and twos and made a deal with a local club to perform regularly in return for a set of turntables.
“I basically traded my services for Technics,” Hogge says. “For years, I was just was DJing — bottom feeding from any club or bar that would have me. I was always trying to find places that may or may not even want a DJ, work my way in, and try to play whatever I was into.” Honing in on his DJing skills, Hogge would bounce his way around the City Of Angels, showcasing an increasingly potent blend of funk, disco, and rare grooves without compromise. Full of creative energy and craving a change of pace, Hogge eventually decided to hop in his car and drive across the country to take a bite out of The Big Apple.
Six months before transitioning to New York City, Hogge created a website that would grow into a widely cherished musical godsend for online diggers. Started in 2006, Lovefingers.org was a site that offered free, limited-time downloads of uploaded MP3s handpicked by Hogge. Every other day, Hogge uploaded his best finds from hours spent digging in record stores and the web, resulting in a thoughtfully curated “never-ending, unfolding narrative” that would receive tens of thousands of visitors daily. By trusting in his deep-seated connection to music from across the spectrum, the depths of Hogge’s musical expertise were now on display for the world to see.
NYC became a haven for unearthing these forgotten and overlooked dancefloor gems. “I could go out, and my friends would be playing disco all night…and it wasn’t just lame disco. It was the illest stuff,” Hogge recalls. “In New York, Philly, and DC, there’s just a surplus of fucking records everywhere! You’re never going not going to find something new. If you really look, you’re finding shit.” Meshing well with his new city’s music scene, he linked with childhood friend and old hardcore music acquaintance, Lee Douglas, and formed a duo called The Stallions. NYC’s closer proximity to Europe also presented Hogge with a plethora of new opportunities to perform, dig, and make new connections abroad. He hopped on trains and surfed from couch to couch. He started exploring the continent via its vast array of underground networks, forming lifelong friendships through a shared love of music. He’s as worldly a selector as they come, and the proof is in the passports. “I’ve gone through two, and I just had to retire one. Now I have a fresh new one, but my retired one, I had to have like 50 pages added in the middle,” Hogge explains.
By 2010, the name Lovefingers was ringing out in various music circles all over the world. For Hogge, the success of Lovefingers.org had reached its precipice, and it was time to start a new chapter. On New Year’s Eve in 2009, he posted his last tune on the website — a hard stop to the project that now boasted exactly 1,000 tracks. The next post simply read, “That’s all folks! New decade, new projects.” For Hogge, it was time to move from paying homage to music from the past to putting new music out into the world.
In February of 2010, ESP Institute (ESP is short for extrasensory perception) launched with its debut release Journey To The Centre Of The Sun by Sombrero Galaxy, a project formed by two of Hogge’s best mates, Jonny Nash and Tako Reyenga. From the onset, the imprint has served as a playground for new ideas.
Trusting his gut and calling on his deep network of prolific producers to help guide the process, ESP Institute’s artistic vision began to form. Although it covers a wide array of genres, each record’s tone and attitude reflect a cohesive personality that is distinctly ESP. From blissed-out sunrise jams to tainted peak-time rhythms to unrelenting experimental sagas, the catalog is wide open, but it all still “feels” the same. It’s a testament to Hogge’s fine-tuned ear and creative impulses that extend beyond digs and designs; it also includes seeking out artists with untapped potential.
The label has shown early support to now established acts like Powder and Young Marco — both of whom released notable EP and album debuts via the imprint. ESP Institute takes pride in encouraging young artists and sharpening their musical instincts. In its first five years, the label pushed out over 50 various compilations, singles, EPs, and albums, the vast majority of which came from mostly unknown artists. It has since pulled in talent from all over the world, releasing records from acts like Japanese duo Cos/Mes, UK group Soft Rocks, Australian powerhouse Tornado Wallace, and many more.
In true vinyl enthusiast fashion, Hogge guarantees every signing a physical release. “I owe every artist the same piece of the pie,” he says. “I don’t want to put out something that’s just digital because I’m not trying to tell the artists that I don’t value their music as much as the other guy that got the vinyl.” The artwork for ESP Institute is headed up by the established visual artist, Mario Hugo, whose sleek textures and abstract visualizations have played an essential role in crafting the imprint’s innovative appeal. After forming a friendship with Hogge over a decade ago, Hugo and his wife’s boutique artist agency and creative studio, Hugo & Marie, has handled the vast majority of the label’s aesthetic, often commissioning talent on their artist roster like Merijn Hos, Hisham Akira Bharoocha, and Sam Mason, to design the sleeves for ESP records.
“I listen on repeat — often to a track or two from the record that really resonate for me,” Hugo says, discussing the creation process behind the artwork. “I take in the title, read a bit about the artist, and start generating. The aesthetic is abstract, but I think there is also something anthropocentric about it. It’s a little dusty, a little human, and I think Andrew and I respond to that feeling, though I’m not sure we’ve ever really spoken about it. I think there is a motif of ‘wonder’ that threads the sleeves together. I’ve always really loved the standard square canvas, funky old sleeves, and honestly, it’s been some of the most rewarding work of my career. The product never feels compromised.”
Reluctantly leaving the bustle of NYC for a new job opportunity, Hogge made his way back to LA in 2011. Upon his return, he found a refreshed music scene with a new generation of players that were “just starting to crack open the underground warehouse scene downtown.” He also met Heidi Lawden, a seasoned DJ originally from the UK, DJ Harvey’s manager, and a staple of the LA scene. Finding joy in each other’s company and an immense commonality in all things music, they started seeing one another. They shared common beliefs and goals, and she helped organize the label’s showcases, acting as a sounding board for Hogge to bounce ideas off of. Lawden’s love for ESP Institute easily matches that of her partner’s.
“ESP is like a treasure chest of aural pleasure. It has releases for my many mercurial moods, and I’m constantly rediscovering things,” Lawden says. “It has that unique quality for a label where I want every release, even if it was challenging on first listen. It’s such a labor of love for Andrew. He honestly lives and breathes it.”
With each passing year, ESP Institute reaffirms its commitment to putting out music that wracks the brain and blazes new trails both on and off the dancefloor. Its reputation comes from the risks it takes, not the number of units sold. In fact, it’s such a labor of love that Hogge has never made any money off it. “We’ve been in the red since day one,” he admits. “I work really hard outside of music to have the money to put into making the music.”
ESP Institute has never been a platform for chart-topping hits. Instead, its success lies in its ability to express new sounds and ideas. The approach has resulted in works such as Nathan Micay’s drastic club groover “Never Rhythm Game,“ Roman Flugel’s skeletal Themes LP, Man Power’s dashing 12-inch The Tourist/Oye, SONNS & Tavish’s mid-tempo monster “Trycksaker,” Lord Of The Isles’ intuitive debut album In Waves, and beyond.
Hogge’s personal belief in the music is seen clearly via the press release for each record, which he writes himself. Each one is a colorful and heartfelt love letter to the artist’s efforts. “Some of them are really annoying, but some I’ll send over to them before it comes out, and they come right back crying, which feels good,” Hogge says. “I always just want to make sure that the artist is happy with the way their music is being represented.”
Unlike labels that prioritize certain releases and provide more resources to one over the other, ESP Institute doesn’t play favorites. When it comes to label showcases — which have popped up everywhere from Panorama Bar to Sonar Festival — Lawden and Hogge are always leveraging talent, booking major artists to give his lesser-known acts a place to shine. “When it comes to these things, you’ve got to bring everybody up,” Hogge says. “The high tide floats all boats. It’s a very Heidi saying that I use quite often.”
Benedikt Frey / Nadia D’alo
Now, 10 years and over 120 releases later, ESP Institute shows no signs of letting up. With recent and forthcoming records from vanguard acts such as Juan Ramos, Afrikan Sciences, Koehler, Dalo, Autre, Ground, Ripperton, Trinity Carbon, Chee Shimizu, and more, it’s clear that the label has not lost sight of its boundary-expanding trajectory.
For Hogge, whose successful career as Lovefingers came to life thanks to his love for diving deep and glorifying rare grooves, ESP Institute is his way of giving back. Like the charitable work that he does for his local community in fighting against systemic injustice, his label’s role in the underground music community plays a similar role.
“You have to be a conduit and give to what you are sucking up,” Hogge says. “That’s what the music label is. That’s what the events are. And when you think about it, that’s what a fucking DJ is to a party as well! You can’t just leach off a system and not put something back into it. And the more you put back into the system, the more love you get out of the system.”
Cameron Holbrook is a staff writer for Beatportal. Find him on Twitter.