“But I want it”: Secret Records amasses a reissue catalog and a synth armory

The Madison label aims to fill some obscure gaps with its fussed-over vinyl releases.

The Madison label aims to fill some obscure gaps with its fussed-over vinyl releases.

Photo: Vincent Presley (left) and Lacey Smith in their living-room synth studio. Photos by Lacey Smith.

Walking into the East Side apartment that serves as headquarters to Madison label Secret Records, one immediately confronts a vertiginous staircase of synthesizers. Tightly arranged on a series of ascending keyboard stands, the synths take up about half the wall space in Vincent Presley and Lacey Smith’s living room. They all feed into a large mixer that looms ominously in an upper corner. The collection spans from the early 1970s to 2020, analog to digital to FM, familiar names like Roland and Moog to far-flung ones like the Soviet Polivoks. It must all look like a glorious challenge course to Smith and Presley’s cats. 

“I have another drum machine coming today,” Presley says during our interview. “I think I got three synths in the mail this week.” At the same time, he frequently sells off synths to fund the purchases of others he’s curious about, making for a constant process of shipping in, shipping out, re-arranging, and re-connecting.

That restless (and potentially perverse) drive to collect has fueled Presley and Smith’s efforts to grow Secret Records’ doggedly eccentric catalog. They initially started Secret to release recordings from their own projects, especially Zebras, a trio that evolved from squirrelly post-punk to apocalyptic sludge (with Presley on guitar and vocals, Smith on synth, and Shawn Pierce and later Shane Hochstetter on drums). 

By the time Zebras broke up in 2017, Secret had started to branch out into vinyl editions of rare and almost-lost recordings from various corners of electronic, experimental, post-punk, and industrial music. Presley and Smith don’t pay themselves for their work on the label, but they say it largely sustains itself—largely thanks to their relationship with the long-running experimental band The Residents.

Their first reissue was Snakefinger’s Live In Melbourne 1981. The solo moniker of Philip Lithman, Snakefinger fused pessimistic punk aggression with Lithman’s resourcefully snarled guitar work. 

 “The Snakefinger thing, that was a bootleg that was floating around for a long time, and we listened to it all the time,” Smith says. “We were just like, ‘This is so cool, somebody should put this out.’ Since we knew La-Ni, his daughter, we were just like, ‘Let’s just make this.'”

Secret got it remastered and turned it into a limited-edition double LP, complete with new art from Residents singer Molly Harvey and liner notes from Jello Biafra. Smith drew on her skills as a freelance artist and designer to pull together the complete package. There were no master tapes to work with, which Presley says is often the case when digging up recordings that never got a commercial release, or came out on now-defunct labels. So, sometimes they’re working from “a questionable source to begin with,” Presley says, but he credits mastering engineer Carl Saff for the respectably sharp end result.

“We do pay money for a good mastering guy that can work with whatever we give him, and I think that’s where a lot of labels skip,” Presley says. “I buy a lot of vinyl, and I have some bad-sounding new vinyl. And I’m like, ‘You could have done something with this.'”

Next came a 2016 vinyl reissue of Behind Closed Curtains, a 1978 album from the playful British electronic duo Renaldo & The Loaf. Both this and the Snakefinger project had connections to The Residents, and soon Secret Records began reissuing albums from The Residents’ sprawling, nearly 50-year discography. Some of these had only ever come out on CD in the first place, and then gone out of print. “People would pay like $40 for a used CD and I’m just like, just put it on vinyl,” Presley says. Secret found appreciative buyers among The Residents’ devoted, diligently collecting audience. The label doesn’t really do that much promotion, aside from placing ads in The Big Takeover, because Smith and Presley are already pretty well-connected with that audience. They’re part of it, after all.

“[The label] just started to release our own stuff,” Presley says. “Also, it came from me not being satisfied with what I could get. A lot of it, especially all the early stuff we’ve reissued for other people, or stuff that was never on vinyl, or you couldn’t get at all, I was like, ‘But I want it. Why is no one doing this?'” 

Residents fans have kept the label self-sustaining and given it the resources to pursue other reissue projects, both of Residents-related projects and other recordings that reflect Presley and Smith’s varied interests. The highlights include two retrospectives of Scottish goth-rock band Twisted Nerve, a double-vinyl ambient-guitar album from Swans member Norman Westberg, several albums from gothic-country outfit Sons Of Perdition, a lost release from post-punk greats Chrome, and the first vinyl release of an album from Japanese punk trio Ex-Girl. At the end of 2020, Presley put his synth fortress to use and released two albums of his own: the grim, zombie-movie-inspired Music To Rot And Resurrect and the icy, ambient-leaning Music To Die To.

Secret tries to reward the loyalty of its buyers by fussing over the details. Smith and Presley put a great deal of time and effort into planning colored vinyl that matches the album artwork, and packing orders so the packaging won’t get scuffed in transit. Most of the vinyl releases are limited, numbered editions of 300 or so, and when someone orders multiple releases, Presley tries to make sure they get copies with matching numbers. The focus is heavily on vinyl, but for the live Residents album In Between Dreams, Smith designed a longbox—a relic of the early days of commercial CD sales. Several sides of the Norman Westberg double-vinyl have locked grooves, allowing gentle guitar drones to repeat for as long as you leave the record on.

The label’s schedule of releases has always been sporadic, and some years are busier than others. At the moment, months-long backups at vinyl pressing plants are making it hard for Presley and Smith to plot their next move. “I’ll be lucky if I get one other thing released this year,” Presley says. For now, Presley is working on a Secret Records collaboration album—on each track, he’ll partner up with someone who’s put out work on the label. There also might be another Residents reissue on the horizon. The ever-rotating synth collection was in part a response to the pandemic closing down record stores and disrupting the label’s distribution. “We thought we better try something new just in case that stuff stayed closed for a while,” Presley says. “The synth studio was part of a plan to have more published new music that could possibly be licensed for use in films or whatever.” For now, you can watch the synth armory evolve in almost real time on Secret Records’ Instagram page, where they’re frequently posting about synths going in or out.

A few of Secret Records’ colored-vinyl releases.

A few of Secret Records’ colored-vinyl releases.

Just before the pandemic shut down live events, Smith and Presley were also working on launching an all-vinyl industrial DJ night, Haunted Ones. They only managed to put on two editions in early 2020, at Mickey’s Tavern and Crucible, but Smith hopes to get it back up and running soon. In the meantime, Haunted Ones will continue to exist in the form of a couple of Spotify mixes and a forthcoming mixtape Smith is planning in collaboration with Madison drone duo Woodman/Earhart, titled Summer Jams For Hot Goths. (Full disclosure: Woodman/Earhart member Emili Earhart is a Tone Madison contributor.) While Haunted Ones is hardly the only goth and industrial night in Madison, Smith is hoping it can bring something distinctive to the mix.

“With Haunted Ones I think I just wanted it to be less of a dance-remix, flawlessly-mixing-tracks-together, club vibe,” Smith says. “I definitely want it to be danceable, but more of a focus on just playing a wide variety of classic and obscure songs that fit in the realm of goth, post-punk, and industrial, pretty straightforward. Just creating a night for people who are into gloom and weird dark vibes, just simple. So far it’s been all vinyl and we had videos playing during the first event, but not a lot of frills.”

Smith has not felt much of an urge to play music of her own recently, but her freelance design business has been expanding over the past few years. Bringing together elements that run from the earth to the surreal, Smith has been creating album covers, show posters, and plenty of things outside of the music world, including a T-shirt for The Green Owl and a print for activist art collective Supply Chain

“Zebras’ The City Of Sun and Snakefinger’s Live In Melbourne were the first layouts I had ever done and I was just starting school at that point,” Smith says. “I remember kind of agonizing over those designs and learning along the way, just figuring things out as they came up. Also, especially with The Residents, feeling so out of my league. They have such a legacy of working with amazing artists and are so visually focused—it was very intimidating. I think after I did the layout for Snakey Wake, which is a really special, personal album written for and performed at Snakefinger’s funeral, I got a compliment by someone from the band, saying I was doing a great job with the art. I wanted to print out that email and frame it.”

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