The white house sits in Lander, surrounded by trees on a suburban street a few blocks from the main drag. Two windows and a screen door decorate the outside, brown shingles and a brick chimney adorn the roof.
There is no signage or flashy labels revealing hints as to what lies within Asthmatic Kitty Records. But open the front door to this seemingly normal house, you’ll find that it’s full of one thing in particular.
The stacks pile high like a cardboard city. The majority of their contents is merchandise and records of the artist who anchors this independent record label.
“It’s mostly Sufjan,” said Ed Novotny, who’s been working with Asthmatic Kitty for 11 years.
Sufjan Stevens is an indie folk artist. The 40-year-old Brooklyn-based musician has released seven studio albums, the most notable being “Michigan,” “Illinois,” and his latest, “Carrie & Lowell.” Online music magazine Pitchfork rated last year’s release a 9.3 and labeled it “his best.” In April, Sufjan is performing a headlining set at one of the largest music festivals in the world, Coachella. In July, he’s performing at Red Rocks Amphitheater outside Denver.
He performs worldwide, and oddly enough, every record or CD of his ordered through the label is hand-shipped from Lander.
“I (feel) bad for the U.S. Postal Service,” Novotny said. “When you show up with so many things just day after day, it’s like, ‘I’m sorry.’ (Good thing) I have a good relationship with (them).”
Asthmatic Kitty began in 1998. It was named after co-founder Lowell Brams’ cat. Her name was Sara, and according to the record’s website, she was “a voluptuous orange and white longhair who wandered out of the woods in 1995, pregnant, starving, and afflicted with various parasites and ailments, including feline asthma.”
Brams funded the label for his stepson, Sufjan, the other co-founder. Sufjan was in college pursuing an English degree. The two lived 3 miles from each other in Michigan at the time. Sufjan was in a band, and Brams saw the talent. He always knew Sufjan was musically gifted. Both were very passionate about music, and decided to make the leap.
Brams, 64, has known Sufjan since he was 11 months old. He was married to Sufjan’s mother, Carrie, for five years before they split in 1985. The album “Carrie & Lowell” not only details Sufjan’s relationship with each parent but also has a photo of his mother and stepfather on the cover.
Sufjan moved to New York to pursue a graduate degree, and Lowell bounced around with his current partner until they wound up in Lander in 2002. He found a small 90-square-foot space downtown on Main Street, sharing a building with government agencies and a local McDonald’s administrative office.
Neither Brams nor Sufjan could have imagined what would become of the record label. After all, Sufjan was in school and worked a day job.
It wasn’t until Sufjan’s third album, “Michigan,” that momentum built. Pitchfork reviewed the album, but then a few months later, did something Brams had never seen.
“They published another review,” Brams said, “because they decided that the first review hadn’t done it justice.”
Since then, the label has flourished. Asthmatic Kitty added more artists over the years, featuring between 20 and 25 at its peak. Brams moved the company from the 90-square-foot office to another location before settling on the white suburban house in 2006.
Lander is the headquarters of the label. It’s where three full-time workers (Novotny, Brams and Karin Kruse) handle merchandise, records, fan mail and more. But there is no studio. For Sufjan, all the recording is done in Brooklyn. The Indie artist has visited Lander only a couple of times.
Running an independent record label with a massive artist in a town with less than 8,000 people has its challenges. Transportation can be difficult. Internet service used to be spotty. But Brams loves it here. He turns 65 at the end of March and has decided to ease into retirement. He wants a lesser role with the label he created with his now-famous stepson nearly 18 years ago.
“Becoming nationally known, and Sufjan especially, it didn’t really cross our minds. It’s just so far away when you’re just talking about (the early stages) in your living room or in a coffee shop. What would we call (the label)? Talking about things like that.
“We were just going to have some fun. That’s basically it.”