The Rumpus Interview with Jesse Hlebo


I like to play the part of the pessimist from time to time, but it’s all a façade – I’m a total believer.  I genuinely think things can somehow get better and I’m constantly inspired by the people I know, and the work they do.

Jesse Hlebo, who runs the small record label/indie publisher Swill Children fills me with a bit more hope than most folks. The best word I can use to describe the work ethic of the 21-year-old Brooklyn resident is “sick,” and the projects he chooses to involve himself in are always impressive.


The Rumpus: When somebody asks you how to explain you to explain Swill Children, what do you tell them?

Jesse Hlebo: Swill Children is a small pressing record label project that facilitates a number of Internet projects under it. I like to refer to it as an umbrella, I try and have all of the projects have a certain flow between them and I’d say they all sort of integrate notions of authenticity while being mass disseminated. I’m really curious as to the idea of unique digital object’s and something still maintaining uniqueness though it’s residing in the digital form. That’s why I have certain things that are completely for free whereas others are very small run and hand made.

Rumpus: I hear the word project and I think there’s some sort of end result you want to accomplish. What is the that for you?

Hlebo: I guess in the end I’m trying to create a sense of community, both through the people involved in — whether it’s purchasing something and as a result becoming a part of this community — or the people who are creating these things, I try to approach those sort of areas from a non-hierarchical standpoint

Rumpus: When I say “dead format” what comes to mind?

Hlebo: I guess like a floppy disc or something. I guess television is sort of dead in my mind. I don’t really see the use or practicality of television. I think there are forms that set up to do so much better in a way that’s far more contemporary, from a sociological standpoint, with everything happening instantaneously there is this mass democratization of things, I think television isn’t a democratic way of media.

Rumpus: Now you choose to release music and literature via zines, seven inch records and cassette tapes.  I think people would consider those dead formats.

Hlebo: That usually depends on who you’re talking to. In my mind it makes it that much more special, not so much in the nostalgic way but in a tangible way. If the mass way to consume something is purely digitally, having something you can physically hold isn’t so much in my mind sentimental, it just furthers the experience, and that’s not to say I don’t have digital equivalents of all these things I give away for free, once the physical thing is gone then everything is free on the website.

Rumpus: Not saying that you want to run Swill Children like an evil, capitalist enterprise, but do  you think that what your doing could serve as a good business model?

Hlebo: I think at least in my mind that…

Rumpus: I’m not assuming that you want to make this the DIY of Wal-Mart, I’m saying there are people always looking for new ways to do things, and underground culture has been a reliable place to pluck ideas from…

Hlebo: I’m just trying to approach it the way that I consume things, which is if it’s something that I genuinely have a love for, then I’m going to want to have it or experience it in its ideal form, whether it’s experiencing music live rather than just recorded, or owning a physical rather than a PDF of it, but at the same time I download a lot of music, and for that matter I find lots of essays online, I guess logistically, in the end it’s all about getting these things out there, I think it’s sort of variable as to which way they are consumed.

Rumpus: You’ve also released some of your own work. Do you find that self- releasing/self publishing frees you to do what you want as oppose to conforming to somebody else’s notion of what they want from your writing

Hlebo: It’s nice to be able to be working with people on projects where they have a lot of ideas about things and I have ideas about their things too, and we’re both working on it together, ultimately it’s their thing, though I’m working with them on it and I’m giving them my input. But it’s nice to be able to completely control what it is that I’m putting out there.

Rumpus: You are friends with all the people you work with, you have a relationship with them. Is each release a collaboration, is there a period where you offer criticism and it goes back and forth?

Hlebo: I’m very involved with the whole process and I’m very much concerned about maintaining the integrity of what it is I’m trying to do with Swill Children, because in the end the way that I see it is that it’s just one big art project so I don’t want to just release something because I know it will sell, it all has to conceptually tie in with everything that happened before it. And I hope in a way that’s not repeating but adding elements to the dialogue I’m attempting to engage in.

Rumpus: What I find interesting is you use the word projects, when you hear the word product as oppose to project what are you thoughts?

Hlebo: I guess product feels more final to me, whereas project conveys a sense of fluidity and motion and may not have an end, whereas product I feel like it’s finished, there’s that idea of a finished product that doesn’t exist with project.

Rumpus: While these are projects, there is a price to them. To put out something tangible in this day and age, it seems to always have to have a price. Do you ever see what you’re doing becoming a product?

Hlebo: Sure, it is a consumable object, and it’s a commodity that people are paying for. I guess my hope is that there’s just a little more love in it than something you’d get from a Barnes and Noble.

Rumpus: You’re 21 and you just graduated from Parsons.  You have a pretty successful small DIY project, what are you future plans now? You’ve done one gallery show…

Hlebo: I did three solo shows. In August and September I’m going to be curating four Showpaper shows, it’s going be a part of this exhibition that’s taking place at the Elizabeth Foundation for the Arts, it’s in Chelsea I could be wrong but I think it’s 39th between 8th and 9th, or somewhere around there. I kind of have this residency thing right now that I’m calling the Aagoosidency, because it’s through my friends record label called Aagoo. He actually helped me start Swill Children and he’s helping me out financially so that I can be focusing on Swill Children and making art and helping him with his label too. And then I do freelance stuff to cover the rest. I’m trying to think if I have any other projects coming up…

Rumpus: You live in Brooklyn, the economy sucks, we’re at war with, etc.  If you could step outside yourself and go 20 years into the future, would you say you were living in an interesting time?

Hlebo: For sure. I try and find as much positivity as I can in any situation that I’m in. New York is a place that has a lot of history and things that I have a lot of respect for and it’s exciting to be participating in that and though it’s sort of morbid I’ve been kind of happy about the recession because it trims off the fat a little bit and it allows for things to happen that require less money and less overhead. A lot of times I feel like more interesting things happening in those places, as opposed to somewhere like Six Flags.

Jason Diamond is a writer and editor who lives in New York City. He's the founder of Vol. 1 Brooklyn, current New York Deputy Editor of Flavorpill, and writes daily for the eMusic blog, 17 Dots. His writing has been published by The New York Times, The Paris Review Daily,, Vice, A.V. Club, Tablet, Impose, Miami New Times, and the Chicago Tribune. He's working on a book, and you should ask him about it @ImJasonDiamond More from this author →