Remembering Barron Machat, the Label Boss Who Took Pop In Wild, New Directions

The Hippos in Tanks founder who released music by Grimes and Oneohtrix Point Never passed away last week, but leaves behind an ever-expanding legacy

Hippos in Tanks founder Barron Machat, who passed away at the age of 27 Credit: Alex Gvojic

Last week, famed music lawyer Steven Machat posted a photo of himself and his 27-year-old son Barron seated courtside at a Miami Heat basketball game with the caption: "Barron left us physically today. But he is hovering around all who know us asking me to tell you he is ok and loves you all."

The news of Machat's death in a car accident early Wednesday morning soon spread throughout the web and a generation of new music makers express their grief on social media. "Awful news this AM of Barron Machat's passing," Oneohtrix Point Never's Dan Lopatin wrote on Twitter, while Kanye West and Björk collaborator Arca also tweeted, "One of the gentlest souls I'd ever met. Can't believe this." 

Machat's label Hippos in Tanks appeared out of nowhere in 2010 with a young roster and an aesthetic that embraced the sounds of Eighties pop, modern R&B, noise, folk, techno, new age and more without being beholden to the past. In less than five years, a strange new world of sound would emerge. The label (co-founded with Travis Woolsey) may have taken its name from an obscure collaborative work from beat writers Jack Kerouac and William Burroughs (1945's "And the Hippos Were Boiled in Their Tanks"), but the label acronym 'HIT' spoke to Machat's ultimate vision for the label.

His most prolific artists were James Ferraro and Dean Blunt, progenitors of the musical sub-genre "hypnagogic pop" that blended samples, leftfield songcraft, bass music and electronic washes in a manner that escaped easy categorization. A few HIT artists — ranging from Arca and Oneohtrix Point Never to indie 'it' girl Grimes and world beat-gobblers Nguzunguzu — have since risen to a position of prominence, their musical sensibilities now subliminally felt on the current pop landscape. In the last year alone, these artists have collaborated or toured with Björk, Nine Inch Nails, Lana Del Rey, FKA twigs and the Timbaland-vetted Tink, suggesting that HIT's influence will only grow more pervasive in the years ahead.

"From the very beginning, Barron treated all of us as if we were all on the verge of becoming the next Rihanna," Chris D'eon, who released three albums and an early split EP with Grimes, tells Rolling Stone. "The terms he spoke in were always as grand as humanly possible. He taught me and every other artist to dream impossibly big. The amount of love, resources and generosity he showered upon us bordered on utterly ridiculous." Joel Ford, whose duo with Lopatin as Games was the first release on HIT, recalled: "Barron was an idealist. He promised everything to his friends and artists."

Machat was the third generation of a powerful music industry family. His father was an entertainment attorney for Phil Collins, Ozzy Osbourne and Snoop Dogg, while his grandfather represented the likes of Phil Spector and Leonard Cohen. But the young Machat came of age in an era where major labels were dying off like dinosaurs, and he perceived that there was a brave new world and level playing field suddenly possible, to where even the most underground artist had a shot at something bigger.

"Barron had a huge vision for HIT; he saw everyone he worked with as a future pop star with a whole team of people working for them," Stefanie Franciotti of the band SLEEP ∞ OVER remembered. "He believed in the beauty and importance of his artists' work," said disc jockey Mario Cotto, an early supporter of the label at Los Angeles public radio station, KCRW. "It was the most naively idealist and simultaneously boldly mature way of thinking I've experienced from someone/ anyone in the music industry."

Machat's connections led to a coup early on for HIT: a deal with the Sony Music-owned RED Distribution that allowed the Hippos in Tanks catalog to infiltrate stores around the world, meaning that even the most obtuse noise artists could be found at the biggest retail chains.

The label reached an artistic peak with James Ferraro's 2011 album Far Side Virtual. The noise veteran whimsically explored the true noise that surrounds us in the 21st century; a hodgepodge of digital detritus as smooth as a pharmaceutical commercial that led British music mag The Wire to crown it Album of the Year. After a falling out with Dean Blunt after the release of his 2013 album The Redeemer, Machat slowly turned his attentions away from the label and began to do artist management for acts like the Swedish rap upstart Yung Lean.

Many of Hippos in Tanks artists came up through the noise underground, where stakes and audiences remain low and the DIY ethos drives every endeavor. Machat's legacy lies in his nurturing of these leftfield artists to dream bigger. "Before Barron, I did everything myself and had fairly low expectations for music as some sort of a job," Franciotti said. "But Barron believed that his artists belonged in the upper echelon of the music industry. His passion gave us all the courage to pursue our art."

A memorial service for Machat will take place at Trans Pecos in Queens, NY on Sunday, April 19th from 2-5 p.m.