Hand Drawn Dracula's Founder on "How to Run a Label Without Losing My Shirt"

It's been 15 years since James Mejia went from JUNO-nominated graphic designer to label boss specializing in a "'City Limits' at midnight" sound

Artwork by James Mejia

BY Alex HudsonPublished Dec 13, 2023

Before there was the label, there was the aesthetic. James Mejia, Toronto indie label Hand Drawn Dracula's founder, was a graphic deisnger, whose work with Wintersleep had earned him a JUNO Awards nomination for Recording Package of the Year — a success that snowballed into work with other big-name Canadian artists.

Eventually this led Mejia to release Wintersleep's 2007 album Welcome to the Night Sky on vinyl at a time when other labels weren't pressing on wax — and, with that, Hand Drawn Dracula was born.

Flash forward 15 years and the Toronto label has become a Canadian indie music institution. As the company marks the anniversary with a show at the Garrison on December 15 (with a lineup featuring Beliefs, Tallies, Bonnie Trash, Michael Peter Olsen and DJ Vallens), we spoke with Mejia about watching the Breeds from side-stage, hearing his own voice on a Beliefs record, and figuring out how to run an indie label without losing all his money (or his mind).

Why did you start Hand Drawn Dracula, and what stands out in your memory about those early years? 

I started as a graphic designer. In the early years, I worked with a DIY label collective out of Nova Scotia called Dependent Music. Through that, I became friends with and worked with Wintersleep, Holy Fuck, Brian Borcherdt (Dusted) and Jose Contreras (By Divine Right). I was fortunate to be nominated for a JUNO Award for the package design I did on a Wintersleep album, and that lead to design projects with Ron Sexsmith, Great Big Sea, Great Lake Swimmers, the Six Shooter Records roster and so on. That was my path into the music industry for the first five or six years before starting the label.

At about the time that Wintersleep signed with a major, I was toying with the idea of starting up my own imprint. I've been collecting vinyl since university and always appreciated the design of LPs. It was a way to display artwork beyond the gallery system, and a way to be a part of the music community. When Wintersleep wanted their new album, Welcome to the Night Sky, pressed on vinyl, most labels did not manufacture vinyl back then, so we put together a limited pressing with alternate artwork, and that became Hand Drawn Dracula's first release. The early years were filled with jumping on tours with friends, going to shows, designing and making art.

Was there a moment when you realized the label was going to become a long-term, sustainable business?

The industry changes constantly, so it's always been an ongoing learning process. Early on, I had to figure out how to run a label as a passion project without losing my shirt. I'm sure I could have done things better along the way, and there have been times when I was ready to wind things down because it required so much of my time and investment to run. Once Factor Canada and then the Ontario Creates system opened up for Hand Drawn Dracula, that changed everything. I was able to organize the label and refocus on developing new artists and projects. 

What's the strangest or most uncharacteristic release in your catalogue?

There isn't one specific genre to HDD. I suppose there are moments along the way that open up new paths for HDD listeners to explore, but the catalogue all flows and makes sense together. Following the initial Dependent Music-related releases of Contrived, Dusted, Julie Fader and By Divine Right, Bishop Morocco's self-titled debut was an introduction to a new wave of HDD projects that had more of a "City Limits at midnight" sound. Beliefs' self titled also introduced another wave of shoegaze and dream pop releases. Overall, the label is quite eclectic with everything from ambient modern composition to big beat electronic to gothic rock to new romantic and post-punk. I've always been drawn to different types of music.

What's the most memorable moment in Hand Drawn Dracula history?

There have been quite a few moments. Beliefs opening for the Breeders and getting to watch them perform "Last Splash" from side-stage. Going to the BBC's Maida Vale Studios a couple of times. Meeting and working with artists I listened to growing up has been pretty cool. Seeing bands at festivals around the world before they break onto the world stage is also exciting. Going to Iceland Airwaves with Beliefs was a lot of fun. My second JUNO packaging design nomination for the By Divine Right album that Hand Dracula released — that was pretty memorable too.

What's a Hand Drawn Dracula album that you wish had gotten more attention?

I think every release on HDD deserved a lot more attention. I feel like a lot of the albums are gems waiting to be discovered by another generation of enthusiasts looking through vinyl and digital archives. If I had to give an example, maybe the first and only album by WISH was a moment in time. Really interesting personalities and great songs that somehow just worked so well on stage. Tangiers were like that too. I helped reunite them for an HDD showcase in 2013. Sometimes the right group of people just enhance each other. There are other examples too: Vallens, Seams, Breeze, Etiquette. I'm proud of all of them.

What are your personal favourite albums in the Hand Drawn Dracula catalogue?

That's a tough question. I did get to "talk sing" backing vocals on the title track of Beliefs' Leaper album. I remember playing that vinyl for my son when he was seven or eight and the look on his face when he heard my voice was pretty priceless. So that stands out as a personal moment. Also getting to work with No Joy and releasing the classic Wait To Pleasure album is a standout moment. The various projects by Jose Contreras, who I've known since 2003, or the various recent albums by friends I've known since the mid-2000s, like Michael Peter Olsen and Tess Parks — basically getting to work with and develop all these friendships is the best part.

What's next up for the label?

Recently, HDD released Breeze's Sour Grapes and Michael Peter Olsen's Narrative of a Nervous System. I'm really happy with how the package design turned out on Michael's album, with artwork by myself and Ian Sullivan Cant. A heavy debut album by Dermabrasion is out mid-January 2024, and they're playing the Exclaim Class Of series in January as well. Tess Parks and No Joy are almost finished their new albums and they're both sounding incredible. Tallies and Bonnie Trash are set to head into the studio with new music before the end of 2024. It's pretty challenging being an indie musician and working in the arts these days. But we're doing the best we can, helping each other along the way and we'll see what's next. 

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