Music Features

The Hope and Optimism Of Counter Intuitive Records


A show I return to in my quarantined mind quite often these days was a quadruple-bill from the end of 2018: Mom Jeans., Just Friends, awakebutstillinbed, and Retirement Party at The Echo. Partially I think I return to it simply because the number of bands playing feels substantial—we remain collectively so far away from seeing one band play a rock club or house show that the luxury of seeing four in succession seems like a true fantasy. But just as much as I think about the show with a longing, hopeful wistfulness, I also think about the sheer energy of the night. It was an evening of kids being kids, a packed house from the moment the doors opened (a rarity in Los Angeles where showing up late is modish). This was an impassioned crowd that was as invested in openers Retirement Party and awakebutstillinebed, excellent younger bands at the time, as they were West Coast staples like Mom Jeans. That kind of energy doesn’t come often in LA. I wish I could bottle it for days when getting out of bed feels kind of hopeless. 

Whether he’d be willing to take a small amount of credit for it or not, Jake Sulzer has something to do with that energy. Even though he’s not up on stage melting faces, Sulzer’s the man, myth, and legend behind Counter Intuitive Records, a label in this instance responsible for various releases from Mom Jeans., Retirement Party, and Just Friends. Sulzer’s own enthusiasm about emo, punk, and indie rock is infectious, and while he wasn’t physically in The Echo that evening, the spirit of fearless excitement certainly was.

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Founded in 2015, the label quickly and loudly picked up the emo rock torch over the latter part of the ‘10s after the word “revival” could be defiantly dropped from the genre’s resurgence. Counter Intuitive’s recent run of releases has yielded some of the most exciting indie rock of any genre, from Prince Daddy & The Hyena’s sprawling epic COSMIC THRILL SEEKERS, to the scrappy, energetic viral phenoms Origami Angel, to a collaboration with formidable ska torchbearers Skatune Network. It’s a lineup that reflects Sulzer’s enthusiasm for music, a collection of records that lacks cynicism, and beyond any desperation or uncertainty sound like they have a kind of hope buried deep in them. Labels rarely feel like movements immediately, but when they do, they can be powerful; when you talk to Sulzer, it feels like that hope, that joy, that excitement, is just baked into the ideology of the label.


When Sulzer and I speak, it’s Labor Day, a fact both he and I forget until the morning of. While both of our schedules are wide open due to COVID-19, Sulzer already works from home and makes his own hours. Even if the label is largely just him, Counter Intuitive is a full-time job that pays the bills and being boss has its perks, like being able to take a quarantined Labor Day off. 

The pandemic has, of course, affected Counter Intuitive as much as any label during this time, but the optics feel slightly more encouraging: an already sold-out pressing of Bay Fiction’s debut (coincidentally the label’s first record), a hotly anticipated release from Swedish emo artists I Love Your Lifestyle coming in October, recent albums from The Winter Passing, Coupons, and Retirement Party, not to mention the insanity of ORIGAMI ANGEL BROKE MINECRAFT, its own strange viral event. But that’s not all. While the future of the music industry hangs largely in the balance, Counter Intuitive’s 2020 has been brimming with optimism; finding ways to sell out of vinyl, break new artists, and release career bests with more established talent, every week the label becomes more and more a theoretical case study in how to succeed while the world falls apart and yet so much of that success is rooted in the same kind of magic I experienced at that Mom Jeans. show, an unexplainable energy that is easy to root for.

Still, like for most labels, whatever momentum they had walked into 2020 feeling was almost immediately halted. “It was starting to seriously shift this year,” Sulzer says. “COVID put a huge damper on what I thought was going to be a turning point for how the industry viewed the label. The day the lockdown started we sold out the Oso Oso, Prince Daddy, Just Friends, and Sincere Engineer show at the Paradise in Boston. That’s a thousand-cap room. It was going to be one of the biggest shows some of those bands had ever played. It was gonna be a hometown show for me… It was tangle-proof of that cultural feeling.


I tell Sulzer about my recurring, daydream-laden fondness for that show back in 2018, attempting to map out why exactly it felt like such a unique experience, a “cultural feeling” as he puts it. I can instantly tell this is a story he probably hears a lot, perhaps not the direct admiration for the thing he’s built but certainly the praise for the scene and the energy, however big or small he views his own role in it. He fondly recalls some of the earlier days of the label, back when they would throw shows in Sana’s (CI’s first official employee) dad’s auto body shop in Boston, and his recollection mirrors a similar kind of whimsy. “Some of them got really big, like, 200 kids were in this area where they fix the cars,” he laughs. “The first show we did there they had left a car on one of the lifts.” It’s the stuff of immediate DIY legend. 

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“It felt like it was our own. It was the type of thing I was inadvertently studying when I was younger going to shows. Being one of those people that wasn’t really (directly) a part of the cultural movement of that time, the entire Run For Cover roster of like, 2011 to 2012, was similar in terms of friendships and shows and the energy to what ended up happening around the three-year mark of Counter Intuitive.”

Even if 2020 slowed things down a bit, Counter Intuitive now, more than ever, feels essential for a type of music fan, especially those who also fondly remember that Run For Cover roster. I ask him point blank if he feels like his label is a big label, and the excitement in his answer showcases a kind of hunger I found really refreshing. “I want to feel it. I really want to feel it. Because there are some releases that feel that way. Maybe not massive, but I know when I’m going to announce something in, say, two weeks, it’s gonna have a large response.” While he acknowledges that there are bands of all sizes on the label, he’s still human, and to see things like Origami Angel naturally grow to insane proportions is exciting, as a fan first and as a label-owner second.


On Tuesday, September 15th, the label formally celebrated its fifth anniversary. The promise of an all-star showcase of musicians from the label’s formidable lineup coming together to celebrate on one massive bill has now been tabled to an admittedly optimistic sixth anniversary party. Like the cancelled Oso Oso and Prince Daddy tour, even beyond Sulzer’s disappointment you hear an excitement for what was supposed to be. 

That didn’t stop the label from going big: In honor of the first five years, Sulzer pressed 1000 copies of State Lines’ FOR THE BOATS and gave them away for free. No strings attached, no email list, no postage, just an album given away for free. It’s a move that echoes his love for the music. “Jade (Lilitri of Oso Oso) and State Lines could’ve sat on the record and waited for a 10-year reunion or something, but they were really generous. They were like ‘Oh, you wanna do something epic. We’re down.’” 

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Like 999 other people, I signed online Tuesday morning and grabbed my copy and sure enough, in about a half hour the entire release was gone. Just like he said, absolutely free. “I was just trying to think, what’s the craziest shit I could do where artists that I look up to would hear about it and be like ‘I’ve never heard of someone doing that, that’s cool.’”

I thought about that a lot in the days after I talked to Sulzer, and especially as I watched the record “sell out” so quickly. “What’s the craziest shit I could do.” It’s such a freeing, insane mantra, and unquestionably that mentality is key to Counter Intuitive’s success. Where others are often held back by profit margins and music industry bullshit, Sulzer runs the label because he wants to foster that cultural feeling, and what better way to do it in the middle of a global pandemic than to give some of it away for free. 

When I text him a few days later to ask what it was like to be Willy Wonka for the day, the text I got back was, of course, filled with unbridled enthusiasm. “It was pretty crazy!,” he types. “It’s been super rewarding packing them all up and seeing so many familiar names from throughout the years still keeping an eye on what I’m doing and picking up copies.”

It’s easy to root for Jake Sulzer, and that makes it easy to root for Counter Intuitive Records. That kind of allegiance is going to be there for years to come. 

CJ Simonson
CJ Simonson is Merry-Go-Round's Editor-in-Chief and representative for all things Arizona. The only thing he knows for certain is that "I Can Feel The Fire" by Ronnie Wood is the greatest closing credits song never used in a Wes Anderson movie. Get on that, Wes.

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