The offices of ESP-Disk’ have moved many times over the years. A quick scan of the label’s 1960s album covers reveals the various addresses where founder Bernard Stollman set up shop, from Brooklyn to Manhattan to Krumville, a hamlet close to Woodstock. Last January, the home office was in its final days at its latest location, the ground-floor apartment of a Brooklyn brownstone. It doubled as the home of Steve Holtje, who has managed the company since 2013, two years before Stollman passed away.
Seated in a room off of his kitchen—among shelves of inventory, a coveted box of original ESP vinyl pressings, and two computers—the 59-year-old Holtje, a burly gentleman with a walrus mustache, exhibits some qualities one would expect from a label manager. “As a former critic I’ve always wanted to push my tastes at other people, and you never get to push your tastes at other people more than by being the guy that decides what comes out on a record label,” he says. Yet he comes off neither as a hard-selling, “product”-talking guy nor as an eccentric enthusiast who gets rabid about obscure artists. He’s more like a Zen master, always calm and focused.
This becomes clear about an hour into our conversation, when I ask him what it’s like being the torchbearer for the label that introduced the world to free-jazz legends like Albert Ayler and experimental folk-rock groups like the Fugs—and that continues to unleash adventurous musicians on the world. “It cost me my marriage,” he says. “It’s costing me this apartment, which is why I’m moving at the end of the month. It is a brutal, brutal occupation. But it’s also my religion.
“I’m moving into the cheaper apartment so that I can pay myself less and so that I can put out more CDs. And I don’t even own the company. I’m nuts.”
That final statement might elicit a self-deprecating laugh from most people, but not Holtje. He just sits matter-of-factly with his arms folded, as if to emphasize his devotion to his work.
Throughout our interview, he repeatedly talks about maintaining “Bernard’s vision.” That vision is strong and uncompromising: Since the beginning, ESP’s releases have been emblazoned with the phrase “The artists alone decide what you will hear on their ESP-Disk’.” Another recurring slogan, “You never heard such sounds in your life,” epitomized a label that would release a play adaptation of James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake or a musical version of ’60s underground newspaper The East Village Other.
What bothers Holtje is the perception that the label does nothing but live off its back catalog. “Bernard reactivated the label in 2005 and people still haven’t noticed that it’s back,” he notes incredulously. “I mean, I’m putting out Matthew Shipp albums that are getting rapturous reviews all over the place! And people still don’t get that ESP is back?” Not only has it been back for 15 years, it has maintained the same loyalty to uninhibited improvisers—with room for both traditional jazz and wild rock—that sparked it initially, more than 55 years ago.