No Sleep In Brooklyn

Katie Von Schleicher talks about the rewards and challenges of small independent labels, her experiences as a touring and recording artist, and how to guarantee your demo will never get listened to

Multi-instrumentalist, singer/songwriter, producer, and indie label insider Katie Von Schleicher is road-tested, and a repository of sagacious insights. She’s a seasoned veteran, with well over a decade’s experience touring under her belt, a growing discography—her latest release as a leader, Consummation, is due on May 22—production credits, regular collaborations, plus seven years recording and traveling as a member of the off-kilter, quirky, and somewhat Americana outfit, Wilder Maker. 

Von Schleicher is based in Flatbush, in Brooklyn, and when she isn’t recording or touring, she’s doing everything—from finding new artists, to graphic design, to bookkeeping, to you-name-it—at Ba Da Bing Records, alongside label founder, Ben Goldberg.

“When I’m on tour, Ben takes over maintaining the deadlines on everything when I am out of the office,” Von Schleicher says about juggling her touring schedule with her responsibilities to the label. “The weeks leading up to me leaving, we set it up to prepare for me to be out of the office. But I have a hot spot, and I work in the car on my laptop. I can still do design and all of that stuff. It works. Sometimes Ben will be out of the office to go to conference and I take over, too. It’s teamwork.”

I spoke with Von Schleicher about the challenges of touring, her many responsibilities at Ba Da Bing, the advantages of signing with a label versus doing everything yourself, managing the needs of physical and digital releases, red flags to look for when negotiating a record deal, and how not to be clueless when submitting unsolicited demos. 

When did you start making music?

I started singing when I was little, and started writing my own songs with piano and voice when I was about 14 or so. It was probably singing that got me into it from a young age, because I am not from a musical family.

Did you experiment with home recording, too?

No. I was a late bloomer with that. I didn’t really start home recording in a serious way until I was about 25 or 26. I would do demos, but then I started releasing things that I home-recorded, and now that’s my modus operandi. 

In addition to your solo work, do you also play in bands, like Wilder Maker?

I haven’t been in Wilder Maker for a couple of years. I played in Lady Lamb’s band [multi-instrumentalist, vocalist, and songwriter, Aly Spaltro]—I played in her band in the fall—and that will happen again if we’re all able to tour again. I play in a band called youbet—I produced and co-recorded that album. I am open to touring as a hired gun with people, too.

On what instrument?

Usually backup vocals, keys, guitar, and switching back and forth as an auxiliary member type. Wilder Maker was this project I was in for about seven years. But I am getting older and I can’t tour and sleep on floors unless it’s for my own project at this point. I am open to touring, but I have to make money doing it, too, which is unfortunate. 

How does your relationship to the music differ when you’re in a band or working as a hired gun?

It’s funny, especially from a business perspective, but making money makes a difference. I have toured for so long making no money—I am 33 and I have been touring through my twenties—and I’ve been in bands that have never earned money. It can be psychologically difficult to sleep on floors. I found with Wilder Maker, at a certain point, that my mind wasn’t even in the music anymore. Also, how much you’re in it can be reflected by the fact that you aren’t playing for a crowd of people every night. I wish that psychology didn’t distract me from the music, but it does. I was supposed to be in the Purple Mountains touring band this year, and that didn’t work out [band leader, David Berman, died last August]. Touring in Lady Lamb, I was surprised how connected I felt to the music and to doing it. Maybe because I am a front person already, maybe I bring a level of empathy to what that person is going through, because it is really stressful for them.

How did you hook up with Ba Da Bing Records?

I started interning at Ba Da Bing about seven years ago. I was sending a record around that I had finished by myself. I was sending it to labels that were definitely never going to respond to me, and my last email was to Ba Da Bing. I said, “Fuck it, no labels are going to put my album out.” So I wrote to them and asked if they needed any interns instead. 

Instead of sending your record you asked to intern?

Yeah [laughs]. I got an internship there and I stuck around. It’s Ben Goldberg’s company, and he’s done it for 20 years. We’re really good friends. It’s been serendipitous that that’s how it happened. I slowly started becoming the only employee there, and now it’s just us. 

What’s your role at the label?

If I had to make a resume, I’d probably say “label manager,” but I call myself a project manager on a daily basis. We use Square Space, but I maintain our web presence and lay it out, and I do our social media stuff. I do any graphic design that we need—graphic design for manufacturing or just print preparation and specs with manufacturing—and I deal with manufacturing. A&R is not really a hot shot process in the small indie business at this time, but Ben and I have pretty equal input on what music is getting considered. It’s weird. It’s ad hoc. I do bookkeeping, and anything that needs to be done. We sometimes deal with more experimental artists and Ben is better at that world, he used to be a publicist, and he’ll do publicity sometimes for artists—artists like Sarah Davachi or Roy Montgomery—who do well and have a good profile, but are in this experimental realm in music. We split it up, but we also both do some of everything.

Do you have a background in graphic design or did you fall into that?

I fell into it. When I was interning, we were doing this release for Jackson C. Frank. We were doing a box set of his complete recordings over time, and I got to design all of the layout for that. There was also a book that was written by a friend of his, and I did the layout and design for that, too. It was a huge learning curve, and after that project I started to take it over. I got advice along the way. Mark Ohe, who used to be the in-house person at Matador, gave me a bit of a tutorial on layout design and print preparation design. Other things are intuitive.

How do you find new artists for the label? 

We get a lot of demos. You wouldn’t believe how many demos we get that—honestly, if someone sends us a demo, and they know either of our names, or an artist on the label, and they’re actually able to contextualize their music and why it would make sense for us to listen to it, we will listen to it and it will make a difference. We’re on long lists for people where they send demos to us, and to Atlantic records, and don’t bcc anyone. We’re on a mainstream hip hop list, so we get a lot of hip hop demos even though that’s not what we specialize in. One time, we had a guy who was writing us lyrics from prison, and he was a rapper, and I really enjoyed receiving his letters. But I also felt bad, because it was not really the best use of his time. 

A lot of our artists are through people we know. For example, we put out this youbet record this year. I produced that, and it is coming from the scene that I am a part of here. We also put out Aoife Nessa Frances’ album. She’s an Irish songwriter, and she was on the UK label that Julie Byrne—who’s one of our most successful artists—is also on. I am on a UK label called Full Time Hobby, and we’re doing a release from an artist called Dana Gavanski. We work with Full Time Hobby, and they sent it over to us. A lot of stuff like that happens. We’re working with another artist who we’re really excited about, and she was sent to us by her label that she was moving on from. There are a lot of in-the-family type connections that happen. But sometimes, like with Cross Record, she just sent an unsolicited email, although it’s rare that that really works out to that degree. 

What are you looking for?

It’s really hard. Ben would maintain—and has maintained since the start—that he just needs to love the music and the person. You have to want to work together. That seems like a difficult criteria, but I think my criteria is even more difficult because it’s his label and it’s his investment at the end of the day, and I feel more responsible. I am looking for a sense that it has some viability, which is a hard thing to gauge, especially with a debut album, which happens a lot. 

Meaning that the music has to speak to you creatively and musically, but also has to seem like something that is going to reach a market?

Probably in the smallest sense of that term, yes. I really like this music, but does it feel like they have a story or a perspective, or do they have a strong visual sense? Is there some kind of whole package here? Unfortunately, at this level of releasing music—where there isn’t a lot of money and there isn’t a huge promotional campaign—the artist is responsible for providing all of that content. What they look like, if they are good in an interview, and if they have a story. You have to have the whole package. It’s like, “Please get someone professional to take your press photos. Have an aesthetic sense about it.” Those things have to be there already.

Once you sign an artist, do you give them an advance? How does it work?

We make decisions differently on each release. We don’t use contracts with artists and we don’t own their rights. It’s an open negotiation based on their needs, what we think is possible, and what seems like a realistic amount to invest on different records. Sometimes we hire press, sometimes we do in-house press. It operates anywhere from publicists, radio hired, and paying for the recording, to you do a cassette with us and it’s a 50-50 split. 

And stylistically, you’ll push the envelope and get weird, both with your own music and with the artists you sign.

Yeah. I don’t think I am exactly a business mogul. I am good at supporting artists and knowing what I am talking about to the extent that is necessary. Ben is trying to breakeven with his business model. He’ll release weird records because he likes weird shit. He’s not afraid of taking a chance at all, because he likes everything from drone to folk to Slayer. I feel more careful than he does. I like experimental music that’s on the drone side, and then I like a lot of indie stuff that seems kind of poppy to me. However, if you don’t take some chances, it’s no fun. How else would you differentiate yourself? 

If everything is generic, it would be bland and boring.

Yeah. It’s not like it’s new—or the construct of Spotify made this new—but people do talk about the algorithm a lot. In the back of our minds, most artists are worried about fitting into what the algorithm likes. I feel that people chase their own tails, or make safe choices, and it’s almost never a good idea.

Do you stream your artists and is streaming helpful?

Another thing with a small label is that lately we’ve been observing how maybe the balance between physical and digital, in terms of products, could also be struck on a case-by-case basis. With indie rock, take Julie Byrne for example, she has 35 million streams on one of her songs on Spotify, but she definitely hasn’t sold 50,000 CDs. With some artists, especially in the more assessable realm, where it strikes younger people, it’s actually better to do a smaller run of vinyl, and worry less about placing LPs. Especially—not even talking coronavirus—it’s already hard to get placement for debut records and small records with independent record stores across the country.

Why is that, because you’re competing with so much other stuff?

Look at labels like Secretly or Matador, which is part of Beggars, and Secretly has Secretly groups—these independent labels now have independent conglomerates together that are pretty large. Both Secretly and Beggars have distribution of their own, and they have money. So even when it comes to independent music, placement occurs for many reasons, and it is a lot of marketing money that gets spent. There are a lot of things where we can’t afford to leverage against other independent labels who have a lot more power. For that reason, sometimes it’s better to focus on digital or Spotify or something where there can be a more even balance.

Who buys physical releases? Hardcore fans, older fans, or people who like physical stuff?

Our independent records, in complete inverse to the indie rock stuff—the more experimental stuff—we’ll sell out of a pressing of LPs, and vinyl is a really big deal. You can do limited edition bundles with each release. In those cases, we try to get more creative with the physical product, because that’s where the listeners are focused.

What’s considered a big vinyl run?

For an artist like Julie Byrne, she’s probably done about 4,000 LPs. An artist like Lady Lamb also sells a lot of records. And then there are the independent artists. I can’t remember how much we pressed of the Roy Montgomery record, but it is a four-LP box set, and the LPs were also sold separately, and I think we did 1,000 of each one. It’s not totally sold out—it’s an ongoing thing that we sell—but it’s probably more frequent that we would sell out a 1,000 LP pressing.

Steve Feigenbaum, from Cuneiform Records, told me that 250 is his max, and he’ll try to get the artist to sell 200 off the bandstand. But you’re saying that for your artists it’s a lot better.

Well, my album is coming out now in the era of this crap, and because of that we’re doing 250 copies in the US. It was going to be 500, and now even 250 seems like a lot. Unless I can tour, it doesn’t seem like an easy thing to move them all.

Do you sell then from the stage?

For sure. On tour, if nothing else, because touring is financially difficult already, so merch sales are crucial.

What’s the advantage for a band signing with a small label as opposed to doing it themselves, posting their stuff to Bandcamp, and using services like CD Baby?

That’s a question I try to ask myself, and that I don’t have a prefect answer to. A label has distribution, so if you want to have your album physically in stores, that’s a big part of it. Every label offers different parameters, whether or not they do marketing. You get support, and I like being part of a roster. I like being part of a community that is supportive. The amount of advice I’ve gotten from Ben throughout time is invaluable. When it goes well, if it goes well—that’s the difficulty—if your record isn’t going to sell, maybe you’d be better off doing it on your own, because you get to keep 100 percent of what you do sell. If you’re going to be booking yourself and all that stuff, maybe doing it on your own is a good move. It used to be that a label was a good look in-and-of itself to getting you a great shot at having a booking agent. But now it’s not so simple. I guess it depends the level of label you’re working for. Why work with a label that doesn’t necessarily invest in marketing and publicity every time? Maybe you need guidance. Unfortunately, I think it really comes down to the idea that there are some artists who are down to book their own shows, who are going to go the DIY route completely, and maybe don’t need a label. Maybe they need a label to be like a community of people, because they have to generate their own momentum all the time, and they do it in the DIY sense, from the ground up, and are completely self-sufficient. With us, we offer a lot of help and infrastructure, and a lot of our artists move on to larger labels afterwards. We can’t guarantee it, but that’s definitely been the trend. We’re super supportive, don’t own your rights, encourage artists to move on to bigger things, and have good relationships with all our artists. That’s probably the main reason to work with us as a label. I have friends who call me and ask what they should be looking for when they talk to a label—what they should be asking the label to offer them—and whether the deal looks good or looks bad.

What are red flags you tell people to look for?

Some people have bad reputations. You can say, “This happened to this person and this person that I know, and they were really unhappy, so be careful.” Obviously, looking at a contract and seeing that someone wants to own your rights and then pay you a 20 percent royalty rate, that would be a red flag. For me, I try to hook people up with the tools to ask the questions that should be clearly answered, like, what is the royalty rate, or what are recoupable costs on a record? If I make a music video, are you going to invest in that? Is that a recoupable cost that we pay back 50-50 or is that a cost that falls entirely on me to pay back in my royalty statements? Questions about money and how they structure it. It would be a red flag for me if a label fronted me money to make a music video and then it was a fully artist recoupable cost, so that I paid 100 percent of it back over time through royalties. I feel like that should be something we’re splitting because it is promotional. Any number of things can come up. But usually, the basic reputation of a label would be the first thing.

You mentioned that you’re represented by a different label in the UK. Is that generally how it works? Ba Da Bing is for the U.S. and for other markets you go somewhere else?

That’s another independent label size issue. We encourage artists—if it’s there and it’s possible—to work with different labels in different territories, because it only makes the release more powerful. A bigger indie label here in the U.S. also has an office in London or Paris. With those labels, it makes more sense that they would have the whole world. We do albums for the world, too, and we have hired our own publicity and radio in the UK, but I like having a different label. Full Time Hobby are really great to work with. They have a really strong handle on distribution over there, and touring, I get a lot a support from the different distribution from the different countries, and the press that they help me get over there. We couldn’t do that for an artist to the same degree. I can’t imagine having to tour over there without the infrastructure that makes it so comforting. Like, if I play Paris, someone from PIAS, who does distribution, will come to the show, and that makes me feel really nice.

How are you managing the current situation with COVID-19?

It remains to be seen what releasing an album during this time will be like, and if we will regret going forward with releases that were slatted for this time. Our distributer, Revolver, is in San Francisco, and their doors are shut. They can’t receive shipments right now. LPs that we have finished, CDs, etc, we have to send them to the office, or to someone who does mail order for us in Omaha. We’re no sure, if Revolver is closed, how would we distribute physical product anyway? That’ll be a big question. Tours, as a lot of people are saying, the smaller artists are going to have the hardest time trying to tour on their records. Next fall, and then the spring subsequently, will be so packed with the largest name acts. It’s an uncertain time. 

Photo by Shervin Lainez

Heavy Metal Mentor

Scott Middleton talks about Cancer Bats, apprenticing under A-list producers, the serendipitous birth of Bat Sabbath, working with labels, and teaching new artists about honesty and integrity

Scott Middleton is best known as the guitarist for Cancer Bats. His band’s music is an organic synthesis of metal and hardcore, and they became an international force on the heels of their sophomore release, Hail Destroyer, in 2008. Middleton is a founding member, and his experiences—including regional touring, being a visible member of his local community, getting recruited by an important area label, landing prime slots at major rock festivals, and signing with BMG/Chrysalis—have taught him important lessons about establishing, and maintaining, a career in music. But it was his years working with and observing A-list producers like Gavin Brown (Billy Talent, Three Days Grace, The Tragically Hip) and Ross Robinson (Korn, Slipknot, At The Drive-in), plus the production team of Eric Ratz and Kenny Luong, that put him on his current path producing and developing new artists. 

Middleton has a strong entrepreneurial streak as well, and in addition to his residency at School House Studios in Dundas, Ontario, he mixes and masters albums, and helps coordinate tours—including booking, transportation, and even backline rental—for international artists first coming to Canada. It’s a line of work that grew out of friendships made on the road while touring the Far East with Cancer Bats. 

“We headlined a festival in Nepal last year,” Middleton says. “There’s a band from Kathmandu, called Underside, and they’re the biggest metal band in Nepal. They started a music festival and invited Cancer Bats to headline. We hit it off with them, and invited them on tour with us. Our friends from China, Spill Your Guts, also played that festival. It’s amazing to go so far from home, and to see these amazing bands that no one has ever heard of. I see so many great bands when we’re on the road in other countries that don’t get a chance the way American and Canadian bands do. I realized we can work together, and bring new and interesting music to North America.” 

I first spoke with Middleton in 2015 for a gear-centric feature in Premier Guitar. Here we spoke about getting signed, hobnobbing with metal icons at awards shows and festivals, establishing Cancer Bats as a successful long term venture, apprenticing under world class producers, developing new talent and teaching them about integrity and authenticity, and the humble origins—and continuing saga—of Bat Sabbath, Cancer Bats’ Black Sabbath-loving alter ego.

How did Cancer Bats get started?

Liam Cormier, the singer in our band, and I are old friends. He lived in Montreal and I lived in Toronto. We met through going to see local hardcore punk bands in Toronto and the surrounding area when we were a bit younger, so we had this connection through music. At the time—this was in 2004—I had a job working for the national railway company of Canada. I could travel for free, and I would visit him at times. At one point—we had always talked about starting a band, just joking about it—and one day he said, “I thought of this name for a band called Cancer Bats. Let’s start that band.” I said, “Ok,” but didn’t take it seriously, because we talked about starting a band a lot.

Were you already playing guitar at that point?

Yeah, I had been in several bands, and had done some regional touring—touring halfway across Canada and some shows in the northeastern U.S. since about 2000 or 2001—I had been playing in bands since high school. Liam called me and said, “I can’t stop thinking about Cancer Bats. When you come up to Montreal again, bring your guitar.” The next weekend I booked a trip. We started writing songs together, and we immediately had an awesome chemistry. He also plays drums, and that’s how we were writing songs. The band I was in was a semi-professional metal band at that point. We were really trying to take it seriously. We were touring, and things were pretty intense with that. Cancer Bats was a side thing and, unlike my other band—where our goal was to never repeat a riff in a song—I was purposely not writing melodic European death metal songs. I wanted to write something totally different, a bit more punk, a bit more riff-based, and with more of a rock ’n’ roll song structure. Once we had a few songs that we had written—and Liam decided that he wanted to be the singer and not the drummer—we looked for a drummer and a bassist. I knew a guy who played drums, and we had a mutual friend who we knew played bass, so we got Liam to come to Toronto, because that’s where the other three of us were, and that’s how the first incarnation of Cancer Bats formed. I had been going to recording school at that point—I had left over recording time—and we recorded our first four-song demo. That was the first thing I ever recorded on my own, which wasn’t a school project, and it was sort of the perfect storm. The metal band that I was in started having member problems—we were losing guys—and I was stuck with a van that we had financed under my name. That gave me a push with Cancer Bats. The metal band had canceled some shows. I talked to the promoters, and they were willing to let Cancer Bats play instead. Our first shows were filling in for my other band, and we had this band van to do it. From our first show, people liked it. We were so amazed by that, because we had all been in bands that struggled, where the first six months playing shows was embarrassing. But we had learned from our mistakes, and had things planned out a bit better. From the first show we played, we sold our demo CDs, and if people were interested in us, had something to listen to.

You pressed that demo as a CD?

Originally, we did it old school, and we had a CD burner. We did photocopied art of our own that Liam did, and we sold them for $2. Eventually, we ran out of those and we couldn’t burn them fast enough. We would sell them out at every show. What led to us getting signed was there was this local band called Alexisonfire, who I was really good friends with. I had toured with them before and had filled in on guitar a couple of times, and every year, back in the day, they would host a series of Christmas shows, and I would go to those. I had one copy of our CD in my pocket, and I ran into Greg Below, the guy who ran their record label, Distort. He was interested in my old band for a minute—he took us out to dinner—and I think he could see that long term, we weren’t going to last. But we got along, and he asked me, “What’s your band doing?” I said, “I have a new band.” He said, “How can I hear it?” I said, “Here’s a CD [laughs].” Soon after that he somehow tracked me down at the train station that I worked at. He said, “Scott! It’s Greg from Distort Records. How’s it going? I can’t stop listening to this demo. I love it. When can I see you play?” I told him about an upcoming show in Toronto, and he said he was going to bring out some people. It was our first show at a bigger venue, and a place where every Wednesday they would give the bands an open guest list to fill the bar on what was normally a slow night. We convinced all our friends to go to that show. The awesome thing was that no other band was able to bring more than 10 people, so we played, had a great set, and the second we were done, everybody left. It looked really good on us. After that show, Greg was even more convinced that he wanted to see and hear more of us. He made it clear what his intentions were, but hadn’t yet offered us a contract. He was also a concert promoter and he put us on the road opening for a few American metal bands that were coming through. He was impressed with how we went over live, saw that people were making connections to our songs, and that Liam was a really great frontman. It was what he was looking for. Eventually, we signed with him, and he got us in the studio almost right away. In 2006, we released our first record, and Greg really took us under his wing—he did a bit more than some labels might do for their bands—he helped us get a booking agent, convinced us to start and register as a business, explained things like royalties and how that works, and pushed us in the right direction.

How are you incorporated?

We didn’t actually incorporate, we’re a partnership. Business law is different in Canada versus the States, and forming a corporation has certain advantages in America that we don’t necessarily have in Canada. 

What kind of deal to you sign with Distort?

It was a four album deal. We were nobody and had no leg to stand on, or any kind of clout, so we weren’t in the business of asking for an advance, nor was one offered. But the label paid for everything. They financed everything, but they didn’t say, “Here’s the money, spend it how you want.” It wasn’t a deal where the band could take the money and blow it all on cocaine—like you hear stories of bands doing—we weren’t in that position, and we’re not those kinds of guys anyway. The contract was for the records and the recordings, hiring a producer and studio,  music videos, marketing, distribution—that was all paid for. It was a legit record label distributed through Universal Records. Greg used to be an in-house engineer for EMI publishing in Toronto. He ran a studio for them, took what he learned from being around all those people for years, and started releasing records he liked. He was also a big metal concert promoter. He did a lot of things, he did them really well, and it massively helped us. We benefited from his guidance in a lot of ways.

Did Distort put out Hail Destroyer?

Yes. That was our serious breakthrough record. We did well on our first record, especially in Canada, but world-wide that took us to another level. That got us on the cover of Kerrang! and we got album of the year nominations in a lot of magazines.

That must have been awesome.

It was surreal. Going to award shows that Metallica and Rage Against The Machine were at. All the bands we grew up listening to were around us. It was amazing. Getting to play big festivals we only ever read about in magazines, and touring with cool bands. It was hard to imagine, especially because we came from a DIY local music scene, and went on to getting our own fan base everywhere in the world. That was astonishing for us. We were living the dream in a lot of ways—not to say it wasn’t hard work or that it was easy—but there were so many rewarding things that we got to be a part of, and we really felt blessed in a lot of ways.

Did you stay with Distort for the first four albums?

Yes. It’s kind of a sad story—without going into darker details—Greg ended up getting Parkinson’s Disease. The engine behind his label and business, and his life, suffered as a result of that. We saw the writing on the wall, and as our deal came to an end, we started looking for another scenario. That’s when we did Searching for Zero. Our managers in the UK got us a deal with BMG Chrysalis. That was our first time dealing with a major label properly as the label, which was a whole other experience.

What was that like?

It was more traditional in that we did get an advance. They were also a big publishing company, so there was a publishing advance, too. All that was something we felt we had worked toward. They gave us a better budget. We did our record with an American producer, Ross Robinson, and went to California for a month, which was amazing. The hard part for us was that after the album was released, a lot of the staff that we had been introduced to in the UK and German offices were gone. It seemed that there was a fast revolving door there. Over time, we didn’t know anyone there other than the CEO—and she was great—but the day-to-day people are the ones that make things tick for a label. The scenario changed. The new people weren’t hired to work with us directly, and maybe the enthusiasm wasn’t totally the same. It started feeling more distant. It wasn’t that anything bad happened as a result, it just felt like—when you’ve gone from being the second major release your first label has ever put out, and feeling like very much part of that family, and invested in the decision making about your band, to something that’s a massive corporation with world-wide offices—I can’t say anything bad about anyone who worked there, they were all great to us, but it felt less like a family than Distort.

Did you release your last album, The Spark That Moves, yourselves? 

Entirely ourselves. That was a conscious decision we made as a band. We didn’t know where we were with BMG, but we thought that maybe in this day-and-age, with an established fan base, you don’t need a label to do everything. We saw many record labels outsourcing PR, distribution, promotion, marketing—well, we could do that ourselves. We know all those people, for the most part, and maybe we could make money from selling records for a change. Our record sales weren’t making us direct income. Our sales went to pay what we owed the record label. The way a lot of this works—and why bands always complain about it—is, essentially, record labels will reinvest. If a record does well, they’ll reinvest in more marketing. The expense bill builds up and you still always owe that. It makes sense, but if you expect to get rich selling records, you should start a record label. In our world, the money is coming from touring, publishing, selling merchandise—and for many bands when they start out, all the money is merchandise.

Was Bat Sabbath a kind of merch thing?

Bat Sabbath was funny. Our manager’s best friend and roommate was a big concert promoter in the UK, and they put on a festival called Sonisphere, which was in Knebworth. We were already playing it, and they had a band cancel. Because we had a close relationship with the promoter, he asked us if we could do a cover set—to play a set cover songs—and they’d pay us to do a second set on the same day. He said, “You’ll go on after Slipknot closes the main stage. You’ll be playing for all the people camping at the festival at 11:30 at night.” It wasn’t something we’d ever done before. As a joke I wrote back, “We’ll do an all-Sabbath set and call it Bat Sabbath.” It was just a joke, but he said, “We have to do this.” It was a fun thing that was supposed to be just for that festival. Nobody knew we were doing it, and we didn’t advertise it as Cancer Bats. They just posted, “Bat Sabbath plays at 11:30.” Somehow a rumor started that it was going to be Foo Fighters. We thought that was funny. Our drummer, Mike Peters, made the Foo Fighter’s FF logo on his kick drum with duct tape to mess with people. As we were setting up, the smoke machine guy asked, “Do you want smoke?” Normally for Cancer Bats, we hate it. But he said, “I have Sisters of Mercy’s smoke rig here. I can go crazy if you really want me to.” So we had to do that. It was really funny. We played the set and people loved it. We were surprised how well it went over. It was great. We played to a huge crowd and it was awesome. After we did that, we started getting offers, because the videos started going around on the internet. People started begged us to play their town, and that turned into promoters booking us. The first tour we did with that, we did five or six shows in Canada, and half were good and half were terrible, because people didn’t know we were doing it yet. Half the shows were people who go to see tribute bands. Eventually people in other towns caught on that we did it, and the next time we did a tour, the shows were sold out and packed.

Do you play a Bat Sabbath set with Cancer Bats, too?

We did a double headliner tour just before we released Searching for Zero, which was an hour of Cancer Bats and then an hour of Sabbath. These days, typically, when we do Bat Sabbath, we’ll do an encore of Cancer Bats songs. People want to hear that.  

It must also be good money maker for the band.

For sure, because for the most part, we’re playing shows either the same size or almost as big as Cancer Bats. People really like it. They have fun. It is a different vibe because the songs aren’t as fast, though we speed some of them up. Our thing with Bat Sabbath is that we’re not a tribute band, we’re playing Sabbath songs in the style of Cancer Bats. It was something we fell into by chance that turned out to be fun. Touring and playing shows is how we make a large part of our money as a band, so being able to do that in between album cycles when we’ve exhausted playing to our Cancer Bats audience, is a different thing and it’s worked really well for us business-wise. 

You’re producing now—with your background in engineering, why didn’t you engineer the Cancer Bats albums? Were you too raw?

For sure I was. From the get go, when Greg first came to see us, one of the guys he brought was this producer named Gavin Brown. Gavin produced tons of big Canadian bands like the Tragically Hip, Billy Talent, Metric, and Three Days Grace. He was the guy Greg hired to produce our first record. We were this raw, noisy, hardcore band in our eyes, and he was a guy who produced bands that we don’t really relate to, but thankfully we took Greg's advice and went with him. We met Gavin and he’s an awesome drummer and a music nerd, just like us. He grew up playing punk bands, and he understood a lot of what we were feeling and thinking. Gavin is the guy who taught us how to write songs. His big thing is songs. We did pre-production sessions, and he would improve our songs and help us rearrange them. He taught us how to add space, and tension and release, and a lot of things that as young guys, or having been in a very insular music scene, that we didn’t pay attention to. Like I said, my previous band would never repeat a riff in a song. That doesn’t relate to pop song structure or things like that. We were trying to rebel against that. But we all grew up listening to rock music on the radio, and that has all those important elements that make songs really memorable. Gavin showed us that we can still be fast and heavy and play the music we want to play, but can structure it in a way that people will want to listen to it again and again. People will get attached to it and feel emotion. He polished us in a way that I don’t know if many other people would have. The other awesome thing was he had a really great team behind him, Eric Ratz and Kenny Luong, who were his engineer and assistant engineer. We hired them to do our next three records as producers.

Why didn’t you use Gavin again?

It wasn’t to knock Gavin, but we had spent so much time in the studio with those guys. Gavin is more of a Rick Rubin-type in the sense that pre-production and songwriting are very key, but he produces from above. Eric and Kenny were in the thick of it every day. We bonded with them instantly. The three of them taught us so much. I became a much better guitar player and musician because of those guys. It made me realize that I didn’t know what I was doing. I had gone to recording school, and I learned quite a bit there, but I learned how it’s actually done through those guys. I owe so much of what I do as a producer to all three of them. I can't stress that enough. They showed me what professionalism in a studio is like, and the level you’re expected to play at to achieve the results and to get there. 

I was still learning, but around Hail Destroyer—and especially after that—I convinced the band to buy a Pro Tools rig, and to mic-up our jam space to record and document ideas. I cut my teeth getting better at engineering and mixing working on my own band—and learning from people who were incredible at it. Continuing on, and working with Ross Robinson, he’s a totally different kind of producer. He’s very physical and emotional. He’s not about playing tight to a metronome. It’s about passion and intensity and capturing that. He showed me the complete opposite side of a professional studio spectrum. He doesn’t do things by the book, he does them how he feels them. I really love that and was super-inspired by him. It was just before that, in between our last few records, that I started recording some of my friend’s bands. When we did Searching for Zero, that’s when I got good enough that I felt comfortable enough to start charging bands to be able to work with me. I started with bands I knew, guys I was friends with. Hounds was the first band I recorded and produced. They got signed right away, too, to New Damage Records.

You have a great track record.

That was exciting [laughs]. What went really well with attracting customers, was when I realized that I can definitely help these people. I can show them what I’ve learned along the way, especially in terms of making better songs. The underrated part of recording and making records is hiring a producer. A lot of people don’t know what that is. 

What do you bring to the table? 

I make sure we do pre-production sessions—either online with Skype, or if you’re local, I am going to your jam space. You’re going to play your songs for me. I am going to go through them with you and show you how I think they can be improved. 

Key, tempo, everything?

Everything. A lot times, I’ll start with structure and then move over to drums. I find drums are often an underdeveloped part in a lot of bands. A lot of drummers, unfortunately, don’t know how to use dynamics and use the different parts of their drum kits in ways that make songs more exciting and interesting. Maybe it’s because I am so guitar-brained, but I try to write drum riffs. I try to get drummers to come up with parts that you can almost sing like you can hum a riff. Also, lyrics are another thing I really focus on. It’s one thing to have a nice melody and a good arrangement, but the next step is getting somebody emotionally invested and attached to a song. If the singer is singing lyrics to me that he doesn’t really believe in or know the meaning of, why is somebody going to buy into them and think they’re honest about what they’re singing about?

Ross Robinson is really big on that.

Huge. That is something I really learned from him. When we worked with him, while we were recording the drums, he would have a discussion about what the songs were about. He would start with Liam. “What’s the song about?” “It’s kind of…" “Nope. Don’t give me anything vague. Tell me exactly what inspired this. Don’t hold anything back. Nobody holds anything back.” When I get in the studio and do pre-production, I care about these bands that I work with, and I care about what comes out. If I read a lyric sheet and it looks like a bunch of BS to me, I am going to call them on it. I have to. I am there and I am getting paid to give them my honesty and tell them where to improve. They might disagree with me, and that’s fine, but I usually I don’t take statements like that lightly. I don’t say it if I haven’t really thought it through. And most of the time, I’ll give them examples of why they’re letting their songs down by writing lyrics that don’t mean anything, and it’s obvious. I encourage people to be storytellers in their songwriting. If you can’t tell me the story, how is anybody else going to? The classic answer is, “I am leaving it up to the listeners interpretation.” But that’s a cop out.

Did you recently start offering other services, too?

Because of Cancer Bats, I am able to connect to a lot of bands internationally. Bands that are touring with us and supporting us, I talk with them about what they’re doing, and look for bands that I might want to work with. I’ve realized that a lot of them don’t know how to book tours to Canada and the States. Because I have experience doing it, I can give them advice, and now I’ve gone the next step and hooked up with a team of guys. What we can do, for the right band, is not only record an album for them, but also set up their first North American tour as well.

What’s that called?

Right now it’s called South Paw Booking. We’re finalizing this as a proper business right now. I was producing a band from China that I had met when Cancer Bats toured there, called Spill Your Guts. They’re a bunch of expats from Canada and Europe. They took us around China and showed us an amazing time. I really bonded with them, saw what a good band they are, and their story is really cool. They met because they like heavy music, live in China, and became a big part of the local music scene in Shanghai. I started talking to them about making a new record, told them about what I did, and they came to me interested in working with me. One of the things that we figured out was that since they were in Canada anyway, they should also play some shows. My partner at the recording studio, School House Studios, is Nick Ginn. He’s a drummer in a hardcore band called Hellbent, and it turned out that the bassist in Hellbent, Matt Bresee, was old friends with Spill Your Guts’ drummer, Tyler, from years ago when he lived in Canada. Matt, as a side business, uses the Hellbent van to drive international bands across Canada. Also, through the collective gear collection we have between Matt, myself, and the studio, we can rent out backline to the bands that need it. They’ve got transportation—and Matt can be their tour manager if they want—and Matt and I can help book the tour. We road-tested that with Spill Your Guts. The shame is that I was just about to do the same thing with a band from Switzerland, called Cardiac. We had booked a whole tour as their first Canadian tour, and then COVID-19 hit, so everything got canceled. It’s sad, but the nice thing is that we’ve realized that this is a service we can offer for the right bands. 

Photos by Jim Agapito, courtesy of Scott Middleton

Embracing Serendipity

RareNoise Founder Giacomo Bruzzo Talks About His Passions, Building An Artist-Friendly Label Committed To Long Term Viability, And Fostering Community

In 2008, Giacomo Bruzzo, along with guitarist, Eraldo Bernocchi, founded RareNoise Records. Based in London, the label’s first releases embraced a diversity of styles like dubstep, speed metal, ambient soundscapes, and free improvisation—the common denominator being Bruzzo’s passion for the project—and that eccentricity is still its defining characteristic. The label boasts a roster of an accomplished, if eclectic, community of artists, including long-term associations with people like multi-instrumentalist Jamie Saft, pioneering microtonal guitarist David Fiuczynski, Italian bassist Lorenzo Feliciati, and many others. The label’s output is significant as well, featuring over 100 titles, and that includes a notable uptick in recent years. 

But more than anything, RareNoise Records is a testament to Bruzzo’s commitment and determination, not to mention his particular tastes. 

“You have to make it work,” Bruzzo says. “You work with very small numbers, but you make it work. I am not sure if there is a winning door at the end—the exit door is just an exit—but there is love for it.” He launched the label in the wake of an economic crisis, which makes his success even more remarkable, especially given the niche music he champions. And, if nothing else, he knows what he likes. “I think there is a little more material that comes out today, and unfortunately, there is a lot of noise—not a lot of it is personally interesting to me—so it becomes a bit distracting. But that is just the nature of things.”

I spoke with Bruzzo about his commitment to music, releasing albums that may never make money, the project-by-project relationship he has with his artists, using the label as a tool to foster community, the benefits of new and emerging technologies, and the process—and frustrations—of discovering new partners. 

Do you have a background in music? Do you play an instrument or were you ever in a band?

No. My background is philosophy first, and then finance and economics, but mostly mathematics. My obsession with music is purely as a listener—as an archive crawler, if you will—a collector. I was trying to not let any little dark alleyway go unchecked. I started with certain elements in early progressive rock, aspects of classical music, and then jazz fusion—mostly John McLaughlin. I must have been 12 or 13 when I started consuming tapes. Then it went from there. You listen more, and read more, and it becomes your little overwhelming secret. I never thought that it would become anything more than a very fulfilling exercise in cataloging, understanding, and trying to find bridges between things that seemed very different at first glance. But then for a variety of reasons—life, serendipity—I ended up conceiving of the notion of opening a record label. I started it with a musician, Eraldo Bernocchi, initially as an associate partner, and that would have been around 2007. The label officially started in 2008, with the first release in 2009. I spent about a year reading all the legal, business, and technology-related material I could find. I guess there have been cases of people just starting a label—and some of them have been successful—but in the end, if you know what you like, and what you like is something that translates well with other human beings, then your label will become like a community. 

You must have a massive record collection.

There were more, but eventually they were all digitized—and then I cried because getting rid of them was a foolish thing—and then I started rebuying again, and then crying again, because now it is expensive [laughs]. But I think I have a sense of proportion. I know what works and what doesn’t, and you learn over time how to express that, and how to make yourself absolutely clear with people working in music. You don’t need to be too technical or too detailed. My point is to try to guide people as much as I can. Give a perspective. Give a sense of hope. Give a sense of support when they want something to do. There are things that we did—that we knew would sell nothing, and they did sell nothing—but they have to be done. 

You said your first release was in 2009. Was that the sampler?

That’s correct. We came out with a sampler in March of 2009. It had one track for each of the six first releases. One was Method of Defiance, Nihon, which was essentially a double CD release with Bill Laswell, Bernie Worrell, Toshinori Kondo, Guy Licata, and Dr Israel playing live in Japan. That was very strong. Then there was a guitar duo from Eraldo Bernocchi, my associate at RareNoise. Another was Death Cube K, which were dark drones from the guitarist, Buckethead. 

It is a very eclectic mix of things, and not one particular style. 

The label coalesced around things that I like, and because I have a very broad pallet of taste, I consider releasing things that are very different. The spectrum is truly from speed metal to string quartets. And I mean it not to make a point, it just happens to be like that. As long as there is a certain tension that goes through the releases, and a certain sense of deep traveling that the music can help you achieve in a ritualistic way—that it awakens and helps makes associations—then it’s fair game as far as I am concerned. Usually, that means that I get my three-inch goose bumps, it becomes an obsession, and then I have to release it.

So if something moves you, you’re going to release it.

It’s got a good chance. There are also rational components of the business as well. This is an industry where the lifespan of any given release is very short. You may need to break it up into small pieces, and then the average cost goes up. Or you engage with a certain artist for a longer period where you release multiple things. We have a number of artists who we’ve released many of their works. You know them, they know you, and then it becomes a very silent conversation. Of course, there are times when they say, “I’ve done this new thing, what do you think?” And I have to say, “Not a chance.” It does happen, but that’s fine, because people have so many outlets. I own nobody. I like to work with people on things that I value as much as they do, and if I don’t understand something they’ve done, which is very possible, then maybe there is somebody out there who understands it much better than me and therefore can give them the type of attention that they require. 

Is your relationship with the artist album-by-album? Do you have people on a longer, multi-year contract?

No, I don’t do that. I did it at the beginning, but I think it kills the feelings for me. We do the thing and the agreement is always the same. There is no variation. The agreements are for mutual protection, but they have to be an afterthought. What is essential is that there is a shared sense of what I am doing and what we are doing at RareNoise. Also, I am a man of physical product. I love physical product. I am sorry, but once you de-materialize the product, you kill the product.

What do you mean?

A nice physical release is a homage to the incredible work. A download is great, it’s functional and some people are probably happy with it—or a stream, some people are happy with that—but the fact that a physical release is so physical, that it travels to you, that it can get its little corners bent, that you pull it out and it’s not clean. I love that. I adore it. It could very well be that people today prefer to hear a live performance, but the problem is that a lot of the live performances are really not that good. I find that people rush, and they have to tour so much. I have seen a lot of things that are just ok. Of course there are live performances, like if you’ve been to a particularly magical concert, that it remains with you forever, but there is a thoughtfulness sometimes that comes from a studio recording. But having said this, I should deny myself immediately because there is a lot of music today that is recorded in a rush, too. It is not necessarily true that every recording is very good. So maybe what I am saying is not wholly correct.

Artists don’t have budgets to record like they used to.

I agree, that’s absolutely true. But having said that, there is a lot of new tech and people have adapted to these needs. If people know what they’re doing, they can do it and get incredible results on a dime. For example, Jamie Saft is a genius at this. His ability to come in and immediately focus at 1000 percent is one of the qualities that I find remarkable about him. And that comes because he has been around for so many years. There are few other people that I work with who have this quality as well. You see it. You go to the recording session, and they come in, there is no monkeying about, and then, BOOM, it’s done and we are out of here. You ask, “Why was that so quick?” And the answer is, “Because this is work, and we respect work.” And I like that. 

What is the arrangement you make with your artists?

Usually, I fund the majority of the recording. That usually means the recording proper: the studio, the mixing, and the mastering. Usually, that is within a given budget, and if something more remains, that is theirs to be pocketed as a free-floating fee. I also cover the artwork, and then there is everything else. For very large projects, that depends on what the context is. If the project is maybe two or three times our usual budget, I may stretch my end a little bit, but usually there is some form of integrated funding. It could be funded by some agency, or it could be a form or raising finance via a platform by the artists themselves. There are many records where we didn’t recoup, but if I don’t them, then what the hell am I doing in the first place? 

Who owns the masters?

We own the masters because I am building the catalog. I am very clear about it. I didn’t build the label to act as a conduit, and then you go to the next thing. It’s a building, and it’s something that has a purpose. It goes from the past toward the future. Therefore, over a long period of time, I must be able to control these assets. Whatever people say, I think that it’s only fair that if you have an executive producer involved, that that particular recording should be assigned to the entity that has produced and covered the costs. The production has to be fair, of course, and you find a balance. As I said, I am pretty uniform with everybody we work with. The agreements are pretty much standard. New people, old people, it doesn’t matter. The point was always that we’re going to grow slowly over time. It is going to take me 10 or 15 years to truly break even, and we are on the way. I am not unhappy with where we are. It takes a long time to build a community. 

Does your audience see you as a curator, or are they fans of one specific artist? 

A lot of people jump in, take one thing, and go away. But the way you capture them is give them incredible customer service. By being always present and in-person. It’s always me. At three in the morning, on the email if somebody is screaming, “I don’t have my download!” I wake up and I send it to them. Then people realize that you mean it. With a lot of people that become our long term customers, eventually, I introduce them to the artists, and they become very personal with them. The idea is to become a conduit and at the same time, to be one that is remembered. It’s trying to find a balance at a time when labels are a concept that some distribution channels would like to do without. But then, they are not really good at what labels do. 

What formats are people buying—vinyl, CDs, downloads—what’s the best?

Proportionately, physical is about 65 or 70 percent and downloads 30 percent at most, maybe less.

Which physical format does better, vinyl or CD?

It depends on the release. For example, the people who love David Torn are CD people. They come from the world of ECM and generally, they like CDs. But for some other band it may be more about memorabilia, in which case, the vinyl flies out the window, but nobody buys the CD. It very much depends on the release. This is a public that is very music-oriented. These are people who love to search, understand, develop relationships, buy—they’re fanatics. I love it. Their intensity is my privilege. It is an honor for me to meet these people. But they can be very critical. You get scolded [laughs], but it’s great. I am being very honest, we could sit today and have a very negative discussion about everything. And I don’t want to have it. I refuse to have a negative conversation. People have great love for music. People listen to music like never before, and even channels like Spotify, who have taken away, have also given back.

How have they given back?

I use it as a discovery tool. It is like having a candy bar in your pocket. Somebody mentions something, I bookmark it, and then I listen. After that you get into more of the details. There are some genres today that probably only work there. 

Meaning that they wouldn’t exist without streaming?

Probably. It helps them. There are different ways to achieve a critical mass of people interested in what you are doing as an artist. But when people say, “Streaming is the future,” I find them ridiculously naive. They are here today, but maybe tomorrow Goldman Sachs will decide that they want to pull their investment, because guess what? Spotify is still losing money. Up to now interest rates are at zero, so who cares, but if they go up, or if Goldman pulls back, it’s, “Sorry guys.” 

But are you saying that for your audience, Spotify is a great tool for discovery? Since they are fanatics, will they eventually buy the new music they discover?

Not necessarily. There are some people who really dislike Spotify. But I would say that a lot of people are using Bandcamp as discovery. But those people, that type of market is a different one. There is no single way for everything. I think different musics, different expectations, require different approaches. You try to figure out three or four footholds that are solid. You find your hubs, develop good relations with them, and serve them the right amount—not too much, not too little—you try to not be crazy with them and they will help you. Then you build long standing relationships as much as you can. You try to meet these people if possible, because they have to be your friends, and offer them as many beers as you can [laughs]. You have to try different things as much as you can, and do things always with as great precision as possible: be reliable, have the best possible customer service, and make your customers feel that you are serious. The packaging is important. I’ve seen beautiful things done, and I’ve seen obscenities. When someone gets a package that is broken, that shows me that you took a shortcut. Why? Show me thoughtfulness.

How involved are you with the artwork of a particular project?

Over time, I’ve built a body of people I work with as designers, and then I propose them to the artists. Usually artists will tend to work with the same designer over and over again, because he represents him well. But if they want a change—or we have an idea—I say, “Please show me the work of this guy.” If he can be on budget with us, we can do it. If there is something I don’t like, I say so. But we’ve released 105 records and it maybe happened three times in ten years.

Everyone is usually happy.

Yes, because by the time you get to the point that you’re working with somebody, you have a connection. You are all vibrating at the same frequency. It is rare that there will be a late misunderstanding or a taste disagreement. When things work well together, they tend to work well across the board. 

How do you discover new artists?

I tell people that I don’t always answer emails because I get so many. I answer if there is explicit interest, or if you have been incredibly freaking nice. But the problem is that every time you open a door to people, they are so wound up and so willing, that basically for them any answer is a “Yes.” But that’s not always true. I regret answering sometimes, because the pain of not getting an answer is sometimes a little bit less brutal than getting a bad answer.

A “no” isn’t better than silence?

Not always. Sometimes a “no” is worse than silence. I’ve had people freak out on me when I said no. Maybe they would have freaked out anyhow, you don’t really know. What you end up doing is telling people, “We are full, but come back next year.” Even though you’re not interested. I end up cherrypicking things that I answer, and there are a selection of things that are really surprising. But you have to understand, you are sitting there in the middle of the day. You are doing everything—production, dealing with customers, packaging, shipping—and it is hands-on. You don’t have so much time, and when you’re done after any given day, you are destroyed. It becomes tough to find new music. It usually happens all together, and with a lot of guilt. I go through it, and if something stands out, 99 percent of the time, it is immediate. I’ve had a few occasions where there was a certain instrumental that I had not understood at the beginning, and after a month or so it suddenly explodes in my consciousness, and I get it. But not always do you have the time. There is a lot of serendipity. Some things just arise organically in their Darwinian way. If you allow it time to grow and breathe, it may take an interesting shape that may foster a new idea or direction that you wouldn’t have thought of. It is a combination of fortune, opportunity, and at the same time, rules that you bring in. You are determined by the flow of events. I know that it is vague and irritating to hear that. I am sorry. 

Photos by Anthony Dawton, special thanks to Antje Hübner

RidingEasy Records Founder Daniel Hall Talks About The Benefits Of Streaming, Discovering Incredible Unknown Bands, And Why Young Artists Need To Cozy Up With Professionals

RidingEasy Records, based in Southern California, specializes in the heavy, proto-metal sounds that dominated the post-hippy/pre-punk era. Classic bands like Budgie, Buffalo, and Sir Lord Baltimore would have felt right at home. But that doesn’t make the label throwback or retro. Despite that aesthetic, it features a roster of contemporary artists like Blackwater Holylight, Warish, and Monolord, and pushes the envelope with bands like the afrobeat-meets-Sabbath juggernaut, Here Lies Man. Daniel Hall, a music industry insider and long-time vinyl collector, founded the label almost on a whim, when he discovered the then-unknown Swedish band, Salem’s Pot, and collaborated with them on a vinyl release of their first album. 

Since then, Hall has signed over two dozen bands, released exclusive, cassette-only reissues of classic metal albums from the Nuclear Blast and Earache catalogs, and launched—in collaboration with Lance Barresi, from Permanent Records in Los Angeles—the Brown Acid series, a 10-volume-and-growing compilation series of virtually unknown gems from incredible, ‘70s-era, heavy bands that never managed to get signed. 

Hall started the label in 2013, under the original moniker of Easy Rider Records—adapted from the deep Hendrix cut, “Ezy Rider”—until the motorcycle magazine, Easy Riders, opted to enforce their trademark. 

“They stuck their lawyers on me and we came to an agreement,” Hall says. “It was very amicable. They took care of what I spent out of pocket—which wasn’t much money, it was about $500—and they said, ‘Change your name, change your logo, and it can’t be called Easy Rider.’ I said, ‘Can it be called Riding Easy?’ They said that that was totally cool. We signed pieces of paper that they would never bother me again, and that’s how that went down. The best part was, nobody gave a shit.”

Hall knows his business, and we had a great talk discussing the label’s founding, his embrace of streaming, launching the Brown Acid series, and why, if a band wants to be successful, they’re better off signing a deal and working with professionals. 

What’s your background? 

I was born and raised in Southern California—I was born right outside of Pasadena—I am 43 years old, and I was a fan of music from a very young age. My mom had me when she was 19. Growing up, I was in the house with her five brothers—who are more like older brothers than uncles to me—and three of the five of them played instruments. In high school, I was already promoting backyard parties and stuff, and then sneaking onto college campuses and seeing shows. Claremont Colleges was about a 15 minute car ride from where I lived. Claremont Colleges is a private school, and they had budgets, and brought in so many sick bands. That’s where I met older kids who were already doing internships, and at 16, I made up my mind that I was going to work for Rick Rubin. At 17, I lied about my age, and in 1994 I got an internship at American Recordings [Rubin’s label, founded in 1988 and originally called, Def American]. That is where it seriously started. I was awakened to how the music business works, things not to do, things to do, and that whet my appetite for a lot of different things. At the same time, I had been growing my record collection to obscene levels, and especially in the last half of the ‘90s, when the CD was king. LPs that were worth a lot of money were literally showing up in trash cans. It was the golden age. Vinyl wasn’t cool, but I was really into it, and it got to a point where I had so many records I had to get two turntables to keep the party going. I got good at DJ-ing and one thing led to the next, and I was doing a lot of that. 

Where did you go to college?

I went to Cal State Northridge. There were two reasons I went to college: I had to check it off for mom and dad, but the real reason was that it qualified me to continue to do internships at bigger companies, because they’re not going to take a kid off the street.

Did you continue to DJ, too?

Yes, and because of my DJ work, I was getting hired for a lot of corporate events. That led to meeting heads of marketing, who needed consultants on investing money on music. That consulting turned into me freelancing for a company called Beyond Marketing, which was a company out of Irvine California, and they were the agency of record for all things creative for the car brand, Scion. From 2008 to 2015, I oversaw Scion’s music program. Riding Easy Records launched in 2013. There was a lot of stuff coming across my desk that I couldn’t work with on my day job. It was either too small, or the content was not something a major corporation would sign off on. As things wound down, the last thing I got pushed through was the Slayer car. I got Toyota to build a custom car with a pentagram on the hood, and I am very proud of that.

If you do nothing else, you’ve already achieved all.

I can die happy.

The first RidingEasy release was in 2013. Was that Salem’s Pot

That is correct. I met them on the internet. They had 63 fans on Facebook. They had just put out a demo. I hit them up and asked where I could buy an LP. They said, “We can’t afford that, but we’re going to put a tape out and we’ll let you know.” When the tape went on sale, they told me, and I bought one the next day. I also sent the link to a friend of mine. He went there about two hours later, and all the tapes were sold out. I thought that was a mistake. I wrote them, and told them my buddy was trying to buy their tape, and that their site was broken. They said, “No, they all sold out. We don’t know how that happened.” That’s when a lightbulb went off in my head. I thought, “If they can sell 100 tapes that quickly, we should be able to sell a couple hundred records.” That was my thinking. I said to them, “You don’t have anyone to put your record out, and I don’t have a label, but this is what I do for a living, so why not?” We pressed 250 records. I sold 200, 50 went to the band, and all 250 sold out in the first three days. 

Where were you selling them?

Instagram direct to my website. No distributer. Bang. Here you go. It was fucking incredible. The next thing I did was cassette-only releases. I used my relationships from all the money I was handing out on behalf of Scion to help get things done, too. I wasn’t bastardizing those relationships. I didn’t say, “I am going to give you money, and you’re going to do this for RidingEasy.” It was stuff that was going on from way before. But when I launched RidingEasy, a lot of people I was currently already working with—from all these different record labels—thought it was a genuinely cool thing. I asked them if I could release cassettes of some releases that made sense. Nuclear Blast opened their doors to me—they told me I could put out anything I wanted that was on tape—and I put out the Graveyard, Witchcraft, and Kadaver records. 

Those were cassette releases.

Just cassette, not vinyl. But the way I looked at it was that this makes me look cool. I put out these albums that people know about—and Nuclear Blast wasn’t doing cassettes. Then I called up Earache, and they let me do Sleep’s Holy Mountain, which made a lot of noise. I wanted to create something that stood for something. My favorite label growing up in the ‘90s was Man’s Ruin Records, because of graphic artist Frank Kozik, and his visionary thing. I also had a lot of respect for Sub Pop—not that I liked the music that much—but I knew what it meant when somebody walked down the street and they had a Sub Pop shirt on. I wanted the same thing for RidingEasy. I wanted an identifiable brand. I figured, if I can start a company where we are doing a moderate amount of numbers, that will give me access to an audience that will probably support merchandise like t-shirts, patches, and other stuff, and even though you’ve never heard of any of my bands before, I could probably make a living out of this. I took a very micro-economic approach: if I can get 5,000 people to spend $100 a year with me, I’ll be set. When you look at it, I had 9,000 Instagram followers, I just had to convert them. When I looked at it in those terms, it became very manageable. I saw a pathway to get 5,000 people to spend $100 a year, and that’s how I approached it.

Did you quit your job and start doing RidingEasy full time in 2015?

Yeah, in 2015 I was done with Scion. They had been changing some things around anyway, but the label was profitable within 18 months, where I could quit my job. I didn’t have any seed money. I didn’t even spend any of my own money. It was all launched on pre-sale.

There was that much interest?

I put up Salem’s Pot and all the copies sold in the first three days. They were pre-sold out, we ordered a second pressing before the first pressing even arrived. There wasn’t anything that I lost money on for the first 23 releases. They all made money. So dude, if I have a zinger one in every 23, I can live with that.

How big is your team these days?

Just me. My wife helps out, and Dave Clifford obviously, our PR person, but most PR is outsourced anyway. I have one other person who does video edits and stuff like that, and he manages our YouTube channel. But yeah, the same guy who posts on Instagram is the same guy taking the trash out, and he’s also the same guy talking bands through process. It’s very DIY. It runs out of my house. 

Are all your titles available for streaming?

Oh yeah, 100 percent, every single one. We’re even on TikTok. Wherever music is made available for streaming, I am a huge proponent of that. I just had this conversation with a band recently. They said, “We don’t want to be on Spotify, because you don’t make any money.” I said, “How much money are you making right now?” They said, “None.” I said, “Then what’s the problem?” I know there’s a lot of hate towards the CEO, Daniel Ek, but at the same time, don’t be mad at him. This is the consumer saying, “This is what we’re willing to pay for. We’re not paying for anything more. If it’s more than 10 bucks a month, we don’t want it.” That’s what mass market says. Fortunately, I don’t market to mass market. I market to a micro market. Again, give me 5,000 or 10,000 people who are going to keep coming back. I don’t give a fuck about the rest. I don’t need to sell 200,000 records to be happy. If we sell 5,000 records, we’re killing it. It’s great.

Does streaming drive sales or is it a completely different audience?

Here’s what I think streaming does, streaming adds awareness. It’s really easy to listen to streaming anywhere on the planet. It doesn’t matter if you’re in your car, or at the beach, or at your friends house, or wherever. You’ve got all your music with you all the time. What you don’t have with you all the time is access to your record player or your records. It’s hard to spread the word if all you do is exist on physical. At this point, physical is packaging with a soundtrack. That’s what you’re selling, because if it was just about the music, they would be fine with Spotify. They want the whole thing. They want the package.

Like the gatefold, the artwork, the big slab of vinyl.

That’s exactly right, it’s the whole experience. It’s not about the music, it’s about the packaging. That’s the reason why, with RidingEasy, I play a very heavy role with the art direction. I do that because it’s my brand, but also because we need to make sure that it’s something that somebody can’t live without. Even if it’s a record that they’re ho-hum about, if the album art work is killer, they’ll still buy it. I know that, because I am one of those people.

What’s the story with the Brown Acid series? How do you find the songs you want to release, and how do you get your hands on the masters?

Lance Barresi, from Permanent Records here in LA, and I have been friends for a long time. The record store moved here in 2010 or 2011, so they were fairly new when I started the label. Lance has multiple copies of extremely rare seven-inches—and they’re mint, brand new, haven’t even been used—he’s been tracking these guys down, buying originals, and asking them if they’ve got shit in their garage they want to sell. I said, “If you know how to get ahold of all these guys, I’ll deal with the other stuff—I already have my distribution in place—and let’s start doing compilations.” He gave me a list of 30 people he knew, who he got records from in the last year, who are still alive. I wrote the form letter for him. It is a single, one page contract. It’s super easy, and there are no frills about it. It’s basically somebody saying, “Yes, you can use my song and I know that I am going to get a statement every six months for a royalty.” And as an aside, we’ve never missed royalty for anybody. 

Do you get your hands on the masters? What are you making the compilation from? 

Some people have masters. Some people don’t even have a copy of the 45, but Lance does. We don’t go to a studio. We do them here at the house. I’ve got all the shit to do it, this is old hat from my DJ days. But I don’t master it here, I have someone who’s a professional mastering guy. He restores old recordings as well, that’s his gig. He goes through it, and cleans up the pops. Fortunately, because we're going direct to the source, most of those guys do have an extremely clean copy of their record. For most of these guys, it was the first thing they ever did. 

Most of them are probably not in music anymore.

Hell no. None of these bands took off. If they did, we wouldn’t be able to afford to get them. That’s the whole point. Think about it, the only reason we know about all the bands we know about now, the only reason they have a fighting chance, is because of the internet. But pre-internet, unless you had legitimate funding and a record label behind you, nobody knew who you were. These bands on Brown Acid, they made their seven-inch in order to get a record deal. They pressed 300 copies, and sent them off to the record men. Most of these bands are regional, never got out of a 200 mile radius of their hometown, and then Billy Bob gets drafted, goes to Vietnam, gets his leg blown off, and the party’s over. But fortunately for us, most of these bands, for the most part, have at least one living member. We contacted all of them. The conversations that I have to go through, you have no idea… [laughs]

You just released volume 10. How many more do you have in the can?

We’re halfway through. We’re sitting on at least another 10 volumes. It’s great stuff, too, and that’s the best part about it. Not every song is going to be exceptional, but I think there should be at least three or four exceptional songs on every volume, where it’s undeniable that that song’s a banger. If you like classic rock in any form, you should be able to listen to three or four of the songs on any Brown Acid release and like it. There was more to heavy rock in the ‘70s than Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath, and that really means something. I love those bands, don’t get me wrong, but it’s still mind blowing to me, even this far down the line, that we continue to find things that you think, “Holy shit. How have we not heard this before?” What’s crazy is that even heavy duty cats, people who pride themselves on being rock ’n’ roll encyclopedias, consistently tell me they have only heard one song out of these 10 on a given compilation. They’re still blown away that there are new things coming out—even in 2020—that were released 50 years ago, that nobody has heard before. 

Switching gears, how do you find new artists? 

It’s like a relationship. I feel that if you go looking for a wife, you’re never going to find one. The best thing you can do is keep your eyes open, don’t be too thirsty, be attentive. You don’t have to open every single door, but there are certain doors that may look more attractive than others. But there is no rhyme or reason to a lot of it. I’ve signed bands from clips that I saw on Snapchat. That’s how I found Svvamp from Sweden. I used to not think that live played as big of a role in things, but it does to a degree depending on what the band wants to do. Though I’ve never put a record out because the band was great live but the record was so-so. To me, since I am a record company, if somebody makes a good record—and it’s a good record—I don’t give a shit if they can play live or not. That’s not really my business. I don’t sell live shows. I sell albums. If I think about it, most people will never see the bands that I put out on this label live. 

Why not?

There are a lot of people who live in parts of the world our bands never tour to. Our biggest—our third most listened region in the world—is Brazil, and it is hard to go to Brazil to tour and break even, let alone make money. 

What do you look for?

I look for something that I think is a great record, and then I talk to the people and see if we’re going to jive. You’re going to have a pretty close, intimate relationship with these people, and there has to be an element of trust. If people are constantly questioning what I am saying, then dude, why are we working together? I am not going to tell you what strings to use or how to tune your guitar, but when it comes to me breaking your band, I am going to come up with a plan, and you guys are going to follow that plan, and it’s going to work. And the ones that do, it works, and the ones that push back and the plan gets diluted, it doesn’t work. Sometimes I get a random email that I happen to open and think is great. Blackwater Holylight was one of those. The universe is going to deliver what the universe is going to deliver, and that’s what I mean, you don’t go looking for a wife. You keep your eyes open, and the right one hopefully walks through the door one time. I feel like when you go out and look, you just look thirsty, and that’s not what this is about.

Why would a young band want to be on a label? What does the label provide that they can’t do themselves?

I think there are a few things. Guidance throughout your musical career is very important, and there are a lot of people who give advice that makes zero cents. These self-proclaimed internet industry talking heads who go on Instagram with a cigar in their mouth and start spouting off all this stuff. It is the blind leading the blind. I think there is a lot of shadiness that happens within music, and usually the shady shit happens with people who aren’t as successful, because they need to figure you how to make their money somehow. I tell bands, there is nothing that I can do for you that you can’t do yourself, but what I bring to the table, is I fast track you. I’ve already figured out all the shit that you’re going to take years to figure out. On top of that, you can be as big of a Bandcamp sensation as you want, but if you want to roll with the big boys, you have to be distributed in key record stores. You need to be in Amoeba, and places like that. We’ve all heard bands and think, “That band is amazing. I can’t believe they’re not bigger.” But then you see another band, and they’re not that amazing, yet they’re way bigger. The difference is one of them had a good team and one of them didn’t. If you think you’re amazing, and you have a legitimate shot at being a professional, you can’t do it alone. If you don’t get involved with professionals early enough on, you may make a mistake that turns somebody off who could help you down the line, because you didn’t know what you were doing. And that’s it. The door is shut, and you’re old news. If you want to be professional, you work with professionals. If you want to be DIY, then do it yourself, and that’s cool. 

Photo by Greg Bojorquez 

Thalia Zedek Talks About Her Four-Plus Decades Recording And Touring As An Independent Artist, Her Experiences With Various Labels, And Her Insights Into Working As A Musician In The 21st Century

Thalia Zedek has a lot to share. A Boston veteran, she moved to the city in 1979, fell in with the innovative DIY collective, Propeller Records, and recorded her first singles for that label with her band, Dangerous Birds. Her next project, Uzi, signed to Homestead Records, and that led to her becoming the lead singer for the New York-based no wave band, Live Skull. She recorded two albums with Live Skull, did her first major tours of the U.S. and Europe, and learned a lot about working as an independent artist. 

But it was Zedek’s ‘90s band, Come, that got her the most attention. Together with co-guitarist, Chris Brokaw, and the rhythm section of Arthur Johnson (drums) and Sean O'Brien (bass), the band’s tight songwriting and emotional intensity earned effusive critical praise, and, when they weren’t headlining, opening slots for powerhouse contemporary acts like Nirvana and Dinosaur Jr. 

“Come did the Sub Pop Single’s Club,” Zedek says about the band’s first release, “Car,” which came out in 1991. “Chris Brokaw’s other band, Codeine, was on Sub Pop and had already done the Sub Pop Single’s Club, and it was through that connection that Sub Pop was interested in Come.”

Come ultimately signed with Matador Records—the next project of former Homestead head, Gerard Cosloy—and released four albums and various EPs, the last one, Gently, Down the Stream, being a double LP. The band broke up in 2001, and Zedek has been busy since then, both with her solo band, the Thalia Zedek Band, and her noisy collaboration, E, with Gavin McCarthy (Karate) and Jason Sidney Sanford (Neptune). 

I last spoke with Zedek in 2016 for Premier Guitar, and our focus there was songwriting, guitar playing, and gear. Here we talked about the Boston scene back when it was young and DIY, her experiences with various independent labels, how budgets have changed since the big money ‘90s, her system for booking international tours, and her thoughts about the impact of streaming on her audience and sales. 

When did you first move to Boston?

I came here in 1979 to go to school, ostensibly, but I was already involved with music. I ended up playing in a bunch of bands, and my school thing lasted about one semester. I was in a band called, White Women, and that band went through a bunch of different changes. I started out as the drummer, but then played guitar, and ended up as the lead singer. That ended, and my next band, Dangerous Birds, was a different group of people. 

Did you record with Dangerous Birds? 

Yes. We were part of a record label collective called Propeller Records. Propeller Records was started by a couple of guys I was sharing an apartment with in Allston. Dangerous Birds put out a single on Propeller, and we also put out a track on a four-song compilation EP.

Was Propeller self-funded and DIY?

Yes, super DIY. It was started by my roommate Justin. Justin Burrill and Steve Gregoropoulos had this band called the Wild Stares, and they were friends with this band called V. I don’t remember exactly who started the label, but I know that Justin was definitely the head it. The idea was that there were all these bands—there was this scene happening in Boston—but there weren’t really any record labels. There was Ace of Hearts at the time, and they had put out the Mission of Burma EP [Signals, Calls, and Marches, in 1981, and also their full length, Vs., in 1982], but there weren’t really any other labels. We were all friends and we decided to pool our resources. I don’t remember how many bands, but there was Dangerous Birds, Wild Stares, Christmas, V, the Neats, 21-645, and CCCP-TV. We would hold these big concerts and put all the money toward the release. It was everyone helping everyone else, and we took turns doing releases. V put out a 12-inch EP. Dangerous Birds put out a 45 and had a track on a compilation EP. The Neats put out a couple of singles. Wild Stares put out some stuff. We had a cassette compilation, too, and White Women was on that, but I wasn’t on that track.

Did you hold those concerts in private spaces, like lofts? 

There were a lot of spaces like Gallery East, and we put on shows there, but also in clubs. We put on a show at the Underground in Allston. There was a pretty happening club scene back then—the Underground, a club called Streets that opened right after that—and my memory of the benefits and gigs we had, I think I remember them being mostly in clubs.

Did Martin Swope, from Mission of Burma, produce Dangerous Birds’ single? 

He did. He was dating one of the members of the band at the time, and we got to know him through that. Of course, we were all huge fans of his from his work with Mission of Burma.

Did you get airplay on local radio, too?

We were getting a lot of airplay on college stations like WMBR (MIT) and WZBC (Boston College), and maybe a little bit on WBCN, too. I think WBCN was more major label-focused at that point, but they were doing the cool stuff, like Gang of Four, who were on a major label. They also played local bands on WBCN, but it was a bit ghettoized. 

Did you do the grunt work yourselves, mailing the singles to radio stations and things like that? 

I wasn’t really that involved in that part of it. I was living with Justin and Michael—Michael Cudahy from Christmas, and he later had that band Combustible Edison—but I wasn’t super involved in the strategy of the label. I was really young at the time, and those guys were a little older than me. I helped with some stuff, but I definitely wasn't the mastermind behind it.

After Dangerous Birds, you were with Uzi and then Live Skull?

After Dangerous Birds broke up, I started Uzi, and that was from 1984 through 1987. We released an EP, Sleep Asylum, in 1986 on Homestead Records. 

Homestead was that label that first signed Dinosaur Jr?

Yeah, that was Gerard Cosloy’s label. That’s where he cut his teeth before he started his own label, which was Matador. I was on Homestead with Uzi, and Live Skull was also on Homestead. I think that’s how we knew about each other. Live Skull played in Boston a lot. Uzi lasted maybe two-and-a-half years. We broke up right before our EP came out, which was the story of my life at that point. Justin Burrill, my friend from the Wild Stares, that Propeller band, was opening up for Live Skull at a show. I was hanging out with them back stage, and Live Skull was there. I was already a huge Live Skull fan, and finally got to meet them. It turned out that they had been listening to the Uzi record and digging it. They made the connection that I was the person singing on the Uzi record, and we exchanged numbers. They said they were going through some changes, and they had decided that they wanted a lead singer. Up until that point, all of them were taking turns singing, and I guess none of them really wanted to sing. I think they felt that they would be a better band if they had a lead singer. They didn’t know that I played guitar at that point. I joined them as the lead singer. I was at loose ends after Uzi broke up.

Did you play any guitar with Live Skull or you were just the lead singer?

I was just the singer. I might have played guitar on one song towards the end—I played clarinet on one or two songs—but I was pretty much the lead singer. Mark C and Tom Paine had a strong bond, a special way of playing together, and they definitely didn’t need another guitar player.

What’s it like being on stage with out a guitar? Do you feel naked? What do you do with your hands?

It was really weird. In a way it is freeing, because you don’t have to stand in one place. You can take the microphone off the stand. You can walk around the stage. When you’re playing guitar and singing, if you have bad sound at the spot that you’re at, you’re stuck. You can’t leave that spot too much. But it was weird at first. I had to push myself to perform a little bit more because I didn’t have a guitar. You’re the front person. There was a bit of pressure, but I pulled it off ok.

Did you tour with those bands?

I toured with Live Skull. Uzi broke up before the record came out. I started doing music pretty young, and I was frustrated that the bands that I had been in all seemed to break up before the record came out. I never toured, and I really wanted to tour. I was excited about joining Live Skull, because I knew they went on the road and had a booking agency. We did one record together, Dusted, and that was on Homestead, and after that we switched to Caroline Records, which was a good move [Positraction was released on Caroline in 1989]. Homestead ended up going out of business and everyone that was still with that label got screwed. They couldn’t get their records. They couldn’t get their money. We got out just in time

What kind of touring did you do with Live Skull? 

We toured a lot in Europe. We did as much in Europe as in the States, maybe even a little bit more. I did two, maybe three tours of Europe with them, and a couple of tours in the United States. We had a van, and we would go out on the road for really long periods of time. They had a booking agency over there, and I can’t remember who booked them in the States.

That was Western Europe, before the Berlin Wall came down. 

I still have my passport with my stamp from the DDR [East Germany, or the Deutsche Demokratische Republik]. I went through Check Point Charlie with Live Skull on my first tour. You had to drive all the way through East Germany and it was very bizarre. You couldn’t get off the road. There were a few designated rest areas with gas stations, with very overpriced gas, and stuff like that, but you weren’t allowed to get off any exists. There was a special road that you had to stay on and you couldn’t get off that road. 

After Live Skull, what was your next band, Come? 

After Live Skull broke up, I took a little bit of time off. I had been in Boston, but when I joined Live Skull I moved to New York, and after Live Skull broke up, I moved back to Boston. I had met a couple of the guys in Come, and they were in Boston. Chris Brokaw (Come, Codeine) was in Boston. We had played before I joined Live Skull, and we really hit it off. We had done a couple of things while I was in New York. I may have even called him when Live Skull broke up and told him that we were going to break up. It didn’t happen right away, but it so happened that one of the bands that Live Skull toured with was this band from Athens Georgia called the Bar-B-Q Killers. Arthur Johnson was the drummer in that band and he ended up in Boston, too. We started a band—Chris, Arthur, and another Georgia transplant who Arthur knew, Sean O’Brien, from his old band, Kilkenny Cats. We did the Single of the Month Club for Sub Pop (“Car,” released in 1991), but we were never actually signed to Sub Pop. Our first album, 11:11, was on Matador, and we were on Matador the whole time. 

Matador Records was a new label at the time. 

They were brand new. We weren’t the first band on Matador, but we were one of the first. At that point, he had just put out the Pavement record, and there were a few bands on Matador already like Railroad Jerk and Mecca Normal. I knew Gerard from Homestead, that was the connection, and I really liked him. He was from the Boston area originally, so I’ve known him since he was about 16. 

Getting signed was different back then, too. 

There was more money in the music industry then. I think there was even a bit of a bidding war on us. It was good. We got a nice advance. We were able to buy a van. We were on Matador in the States and we were on Beggars Banquet in Europe. It was two separate labels, and we got twice as much money. They were not together then—Beggars and Matador didn’t merge until many years after that—we had a manager at the time, Tom Johnston, who was helping us facilitate that, we weren’t doing it all ourselves. 

Did you get a salary from the label? How did that work? 

We didn’t get a salary. We got an advance. You could use the advance for recording and other stuff, but it was more than we needed for the recording. We also got tour support—a certain amount of tour support—we recorded for free, we had enough to buy a van to tour in, and we were able to get paid while we toured. It was a fair amount of money at that time. They had a promotional budget, and we made videos, too. 

What’s the story behind that video for “Cimarron,” where you’re beating each other up?

That video was not one that Matador made. We were asked to participate on a benefit record, where all the proceeds went to a women’s health charity. They asked us to donate a song. The album was called, Ain’t Nothin’ But A She Thing, and it was this big MTV thing. They made the video and teamed us up with this woman, Sophie Tucker, she had worked with Jeff Buckley. She was British and they flew her over from England. They put us up in the Chelsea Hotel and we made this video to the song, which we donated to them. They did the compilation record and did an MTV special on it. That was produced by London Records—we didn’t have anything to do with that label—but we did have to sign something, we had to give them that song. I don’t know if at this point we’d have permission to reissue it. It was definitely an exclusive, it wasn’t an album track or anything like that.

What type of touring did you do?

We would headline. Sometimes we opened for different bands. We opened up for Nirvana for a leg of their In Utero tour. We played with Dinosaur Jr a lot, and Buffalo Tom and Sugar—Bob Mould’s band after Hüsker Dü—and in those cases, we’d open up for them, too. But for the most part we would do headlining tours of smallish-type clubs. We played a few festivals, too, but I think I played more festivals with my solo stuff than I did with Come. 

How has touring changed, besides the obvious things like traveling with GPS and a cell phone?

Good question. I don’t know if it’s really changed all that much, though it’s definitely changed for me. I went from having a booking agent booking all my shows, to booking almost all of it myself. The last tour I did in Europe was in January 2019, and I booked a 26-show tour in Europe by myself. After years of working with different booking agents and it not working out, I had enough contacts on my own in different countries. I asked other musician friends who they were working with, and I developed a network that was big enough for me to do it myself. That’s definitely a change. Come had a booking agent, a tour manager, and traveled with a sound person, and/or a driver. That’s a luxury I can’t afford these days.

How do you book your tours, do you have a database and list of clubs?

Except in a few cases, I don’t contact the clubs directly. When I had a European booking agent, they wouldn’t call the clubs themselves, they had different promoters they would work with in different territories or different countries who would coordinate the whole thing. Through talking with a lot of people and different connections, I developed that, too.

Those promoters book all your shows in their territory. For example, if you do five shows in Spain, those are all booked by the same person?

More or less. There are certain places—just from doing it for some many years—I have personal relationships with the owner of the venue. They know me and I know them. We’re on a first name basis. I email them, ask for a show on a certain date, and they get back to me. But I don’t think I can book an entire tour just calling up clubs, because clubs come and go. What you really want is someone who does that, but is more of a promoter-type person. You do that and then give them a percentage, 10 or 15 percent of the money you make playing their territory.

Do you have people like that in the States as well?

No [laughs]. That’s a European-only thing. In the States I actually contact the clubs myself. There are some big booking agents in the States, but I don’t think they focus on one territory, they focus on bands. In Europe, it’s like that because there are different countries, different languages, and things like that. That’s just the way it works over there.

Have you booked other bands?

No. I’ve thought about it. I’ve spent so much time doing this I should be a booking agent, but then I think, “No, I shouldn’t [laughs].” There’s not a lot of money in it. You have to have a ton of bands who are playing all the time.

Nowadays, you’re signed to Thrill Jockey, both for your solo stuff and your band, E.

Thrill Jockey isn’t doing the new E record. They did our first two, but the band’s schedule is a bit more complicated than it had been a few years back. We’re putting it out on a Czech label called Silver Rocket, who are super cool people, and they also have a booking arm. We’ve worked with them before. It feels like these days, most distribution is done online—through Bandcamp or whatever—or through playing shows and selling your record at the merch table. I think we sell more records that way, then actually in record stores.

Why bother being on a label? Why not just post it in on Bandcamp yourself?

If you’re with a label like Thrill Jockey, it’s great. Bettina Richards (the label head) has people working there. There’s a publicist, a promoter, someone who does radio, sales, distribution in different territories, and they will get your records into the shops. The promotion and publicity is something the label really has to offer. Also, they are paying to make the record. They give you a budget to make the record, and they pay for the production and mastering.

Budgets are nothing like they were in the ‘90s though.

Oh God no. 

How has streaming affected things?

Financially, streaming is definitely not a positive. The amount you get paid for having a song streamed is minuscule. It’s fractions of a cent. It’s difficult to make money from streaming. It is a good way to have your music heard though. It’s convenient for people. They say you make up for it in live sales because more people will hear your music and will then go see you play, but the fact of the matter is, people aren’t going out to see live music that much either.

Is attendance down in clubs as well?

Definitely. I think the jam music scene is packing people in. There are definitely bands that are doing well and selling lots of tickets, but in terms of smaller clubs, I don’t think they’re doing that well. I don’t know how in vogue guitar music is with the younger generation—or the generation that would be going out—that can either afford to go out or is old enough to go out, but not so old that they have kids or serious jobs.

Streaming isn’t like radio in that it doesn’t drive sales of physical records, because you already have instant access to the song you want. 

No. But my stuff does sell, because I am a bit older. The record label told me that apparently I sell more physical product than bands that may be younger. There is a whole generation of people who do not buy music. Period. End of story. They have never bought music in their life. My fans are slightly older, so I do sell physical product.

Vinyl sells?

Thrill Jockey is a very vinyl-positive label. All the records I’ve done on Thrill Jockey are on vinyl and CD. The new E record is going to be on vinyl, but not CD. People do buy CDs, though not many people have CD players any more—I still do—but they’re not super popular. But I have a feeling they might come back…

Photo credits: top, by Naomi Yang / with cigarette by Manfred Rahs

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