Jon Madof Talks About Starting Chant Records, Festivals, And Why Rejection Is Better Than Silence

Jon Madof does things differently, which probably explains his decades-long association with composer/iconoclast, John Zorn. Madof’s bands have recorded for Zorn’s label, Tzadik Records, and his current project, Zion80, fuzes the cantorial melodies of Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach with the rhythms of Afrobeat pioneer, Fela Kuti. He’s also worked with artists like Marc Ribot and Matisyahu, and in late-2017, together with multi-instrumentalist, Shanir Blumenkranz, launched the artist-friendly label, Chant Records

Chant Records, which is our main focus here, is the outgrowth of a community of like-minded musicians—their tagline is “adventurous music across the spectrum”—and is built on a premise of collaboration and interconnectedness. The concept, at least in theory, is to bring disparate audiences together, share bills, hype each other’s releases, and to turn fans on to new, challenging music. And their approach, as you’d expect, is somewhat audacious. 

“When we first started the label, we decided to make a compilation that we’d give away to everyone who signs up for our mailing list as an incentive,” Madof says. “We reached out to artists—even if we knew they weren’t going to be on the label—and asked them to donate one song to us. I thought we were going to get 12 songs. But Shanir said, ‘No, we’re going to give them 100 songs. I said, ‘100 songs? That’s insane.’ But he said, ‘No, it will overwhelm them with this web of artists that we have—with all these people who are involved in this. It’s this thing you never heard of that hits you like a truck in the face.’ OK. So when you sign up for our mailing list, you get 100 songs.”

Monster downloads notwithstanding, I spoke with Madof—actually, this was my ill-fated attempt at a podcast, but whatever, the printed word rules—and we discussed his gig with Zorn; some of the leadership, business, and creative lessons he’s learned from their relationship; the special purpose and mission of Chant Records; the nuts and bolts of working with artists and running a small label; booking festivals; and why, sometimes, artists would rather hear “no” than be ignored. 

When did you get into music?

I was always around music. My parents are big music fans—my dad plays the guitar and my mom was always listening to the opera—they love folk music and oldies. We had a record player and it was always on. My first instrument was the trombone. I was in public school, in fourth grade you have to pick an instrument, so I got the trombone. I didn’t realize until years later that it’s actually a cool instrument. It was like the dorky band instrument, which fit me well. I started playing guitar when I was about 14.

Where did you go to college?

I went to Oberlin. I wasn’t in the conservatory proper, but I benefited from it. I scammed my way into the jazz guitar studio and had a lot of great experiences there. I studied with the students there first—you could pay a student like five bucks for lessons—but by the end I was studying with the faculty jazz guitar teacher. I also found a teacher at home in Philadelphia. His name is Jimmy Bruno. He’s this monster straight ahead guitar player. He was my teacher when I would come home. After college I lived at home for the better part of a year and practiced. My parents were open to that.

How did you make your way to New York and get involved in that scene?

When I was in college I serendipitously got ahold of a CD by Mario Pavone, who’s a bass player on the downtown, improvised music scene, and that led me to lots of other stuff. I had already been aware of John Zorn, but this connected me a little deeper to other people on that scene. Something about that scene connected to what I always loved about punk and noise and all that stuff, but it brought jazz in as well. It certainly wasn’t straight ahead, it just connected all these things together for me. But what prompted me actually moving to New York was meeting my wife. We met in Philly, but she just knew she wanted to live in New York. It was not a question. I thought, “Where else do I want to go for music?” So it was perfect. 

When did you meet Zorn?

When I moved to New York, I was very single minded and very determined. I wanted to be on Zorn’s label, Tzadik Records. I started writing music that I was into, but also that I thought would be in line with what was happening on Tzadik and that whole thing. After a couple years of playing with my trio, Rashanim [with Shanir Blumenkranz, on bass, and Matthias Künzli, on drums], I recorded a demo. I went to an improv night at Tonic, met Zorn—I had never met him before, but I had seen him play—and I gave it to him. I was really nervous. I put my number on there, and he called me two days later.

He really listened to it?

He did. At that time—I am sure it is still the case—Shanir said, “Here’s what’s going to happen: you’re going to give John the CD, he’s going to listen to it right away, and if he wants to work with you, you're going to know within a week. If you don't hear back from him, don’t be upset, just move on.” Next thing I knew, we were making plans. It was really overwhelming. It actually brought up a lot of other stuff, things like, getting what you want, realizing that “I have to deal with this, I have to write new tunes for the record.” And the self-critical thing that happens, “Am I good enough to do this?” But that's how the relationship started.

And he signed you to Tzadik Records?

Tzadik works on a project basis. He works with you for the album. It’s not like a three album deal or anything like that. It’s very straight forward. The contracts are two pages and written in plain English. It spoiled me for dealing with that stuff. 

He had funding for the album? 

Yeah, he has a budget. In that way it works like a normal label—you get the advance and do the record. We ended up doing four albums for Tzadik. That’s when we started touring, and I got my introduction to that world. 

Did you learn a lot about running a label and working with artists through that experience?

I really consider Zorn a mentor in so many ways: from putting a song together, to arranging, to working with musicians, to hiring people, to communication, to dealing with festivals. Specifically, some things just stick out in my memory as far as what made an impact. One thing—because it is kind of symbolic for me in terms of how Zorn operates—when we were doing the first album, he was with us in the studio. I was going over it and looking at the sequencing. I thought, “You want to give them a little bit of this and that, and show the range of the band.” But when Zorn heard it and he read what my sequence was, he said, “That’s all wrong. You want to hit with the hardest, strongest, most extreme thing that you do, first.”

Put the most abrasive, offensive thing first? 

It was more like—this was how he framed it—put the strongest thing first, which in this case was the loudest, most obnoxious song on the record. That really hit me. He’s not trying to please anybody. He wanted me to make the strongest statement of what the album is. Like it or not, this is what the band is. He has this reputation—the things people say about him are the same things I’ve heard people say about punk rock, “It’s noise. Their heart’s not in it. They’re just doing it to be oppositional.” But it’s not. It’s about making a strong statement and connecting to what you really love. If that doesn’t fit into somebody else’s box, so be it. That’s not what we’re here for. 

On a business level, he was like that as well?

One hundred percent, which is great. It has always been like that with him. When you see how he operates, it is very compelling. But he’s not always about accommodating people. I’ll tell you another story, because it’s also symbolic for me. Rashanim played in 2006 at Tonic. I think it was the debut of Masada, Book Two, and it was way before the recordings came out. He gave a bunch of bands the tunes, we played them, and each band played a few songs. We sound checked and went over the tunes for Zorn to make sure he liked them. When we played the show, as we were going up on stage, Shanir said to me, “There’s supposed to be a guitar solo upfront on that second tune, but there’s already a guitar solo upfront on the first tune, so let me take a bass solo upfront on the second one.” I said, “Fine.” We started playing the song, and I can see—because I had been playing with Zorn for two or three years at that point—I can tell that as soon as we start, that he’s not happy. He was sitting right in front, just looking at me. We finished the tune—there were about 300 or 400 people there, it was packed—and he gets up, turns around, and says to the audience, “We rehearsed this before. They played it a lot better and they played the solos in a different order. Do you know what I am going to do? I am going to make them play it again, and they are going to play it right this time.” He looked at me, he used some colorful language, and he said to play it the way we went over it before. I was mortified—I can still my heart beating. We played it again and it ended up being fine. Somebody wrote an article about it. It ended up being a story like, “Did you hear what Zorn did?” But afterwards, he brought me backstage—or whatever was the equivalent of backstage at Tonic—and he said, “The reason I did that was because this is your band. You need to be the one to make the decisions. Anytime something changes, or happens in this band, it has to be because you say that’s how you want it.” Now Shanir didn’t mean anything, he was just suggesting that for variety. He was doing it from a place of the music. But Zorn’s point was not against him, it was, “You make these decisions. You have to take control. You have to say, ‘No, we’re going to play it this way.’” Which is funny, because he’s telling me that it’s my band, but I thought, “But what if I don’t want to play the song again and be embarrassed in front of a room full of people?” But I guess that wasn't an option [laughs]. Maybe he was saying, “This is my song, so I am in control. This is your band, so you take control.” 

Do you behave that way with your bands now?

I do much more, especially after working with Zorn for a while. But I see that I have a tendency to be accommodating, not in a nice way, but in an almost self-effacing way, which is not productive. That’s something I am aware of and trying to overcome, but not in the way of being a dictator. Zorn is the example. But that way of doing things like that is not the pattern with Zorn. The feeling of being on stage with him is amazing. I don’t remember where I heard this quote, but it’s brilliant, “The way you can tell that someone is great is that you feel great when you’re around them.” They don’t draw praise to themselves or say how great they are, you feel great around them. Being on stage with Zorn is one of the best feelings, because he lifts everybody up.

Why did you start Chant Records? 

Shanir Blumenkranz is the bass player in my trio, Rashanim, and also Zion80, and he cofounded Chant Records with me. We had been talking about a way for people in our community to release music. Obviously, many of us have released music on Tzadik, but Zorn, rightfully so, has his own schedule that he’s working on, and his own curatorial thing with the label of what he wants to put out, and where it fits into the big picture. Shanir and I thought—this was in 2015—if we have an idea, and we’re able to record it, we should be able to just put it out. Even if it doesn’t have a huge reach, we shouldn’t have to call somebody, and wait, and put it off a year. Alternatively, we could just release it ourselves—put it on Bandcamp or whatever—and have it go nowhere. But there had to be a third way of doing it. 

At first, I thought it was too much trouble, because anybody can release an album nowadays—with how the music industry has changed, with streaming and digital distribution—what would they need us for? But then it hit me. Zion80 was playing somewhere and I needed updated bios for each band member. I googled Shanir, because he’s always playing with somebody new, and the first thing that comes up is an album by the Fugu Plan. The music was amazing, it had all these musicians I know playing on it, and only two or three people had bought the album. I called Shanir and I said, “What is this?” He said, “It’s the Fugu Plan.” I said, “Why didn’t you tell me about this?” He said, “I don’t know.” I said, “This label that we’re talking about, it needs to happen because of this.” It occurred to me that we should make a web. Whatever reach we have as individuals, that had to be pooled together. Anytime one of us puts out an album, all the fans of the other bands should know about it, too. It should all be out there, in one place, no matter how small it is. We started talking about what it would look like, if we were going to release physical CDs, were we just going to do digital, how will it work as far as revenue, who’s going to do what, what’s it going to be called… We got the ball rolling and launched in November, 2017. 

How does it work?

On a very practical level, we have a contract that spells out everything. We work with a digital distributer that puts it on steaming services. We put it on Bandcamp. We do the publicity and promotion and handle the mailing list. We do try and work with the artists, so that they’ll expose their people to what we’re doing and vice versa.

It’s organic? You message your people to check out this new project, and they do the same?

That’s certainly part of it. I do a Facebook live interview with the artist when the album comes out. We try to amplify whatever they’re doing. If they have a big gig coming up, we’ll get the word out to our people. For example, if we know two bands in Tel Aviv that are both on the label, we’ll try to connect them and maybe do a Chant Records release show in Tel Aviv. That’s an example, things like that. Also, it’s still in the first stages, but I am working on getting sync licensing opportunities for the artists as well—placements in films, TV, ads, podcasts, and things like that. 

Do you have a budget or does each artist fund his or her project? 

We don’t have any initial budget that goes out, which means that the artist has to fund the recording before it comes to us. But the flip side of that is there is no advance to recoup, which is how a label would normally work. We start the profit sharing from the very beginning. If we could fund all the records, we would, but we’re not in the position to do that. When we first started, that was one of our questions, “Why would an artist want to do this?” But Shanir started talking to people. So many people, over and over again, said, “You know, I have an album on my hard drive that I haven’t done anything with. I don’t want—or don’t know how—to get it up on Bandcamp or how put it on Spotify. It sounds like too much to deal with.” Shanir said, “Give it to us. We’ll deal with it.” Now we’re in this cycle where every month, we send stuff to the distributer, Bandcamp, press lists—it has momentum to it.

You have a pretty significant roster already and you’re releasing a lot of albums every month. 

Yes, it’s crazy. We started out between two and four albums a month, which a little bit much. At the beginning, the first month, we put out four albums, and we’ve whittled it down to an album a month now. That’s still a lot. We have 45 albums so far, which is crazy. A lot of it is because the albums come to us already finished. But it is still a lot of work.

Do you have a specific aesthetic? What music will you reject? 

That’s been very hard to pin down, because it is really not genre-focused. Our tag line is, “adventurous music across the spectrum.” Shanir and I were discussing it, “Would we put out an album of Bach string quartets?” He said, “Maybe if there was a laptop on it.” “Would we put out a folk album?” “Yes, if it’s a weird, messed up folk album, we might consider it.” Whatever the genre is, we’re the outer reaches, the experimental wing of whatever genre. But that doesn’t always mean that it sounds experimental. For example, one of the first albums we put out was Sandcatchers, which is Yoshie Fruchter’s band. He mixes Americana and Middle Eastern music. He has slide guitar and oud—those are the lead voices—and cello, cellist Erik Friedlander is on that record, it’s beautiful. The music itself is not crazy, weird, or abrasive, but the fact that it is mixing Americana and Middle Eastern music is an experimental, adventurous take on folk and world music. 

Do you have a certain standard in terms of sound quality?

It depends. Shanir’s take is, he literally said this, “I wouldn’t automatically reject something that was recorded on somebody’s phone.” At first, I thought, “I would. Why can’t it sound good?” But he said, “Some things are meant to sound like that.” And I hear that. If it’s an approximation of something—if it’s an approximation that’s not all the way there in the realization—we might say no to it, but it doesn’t have to have a particular sound quality. 

It’s case by case.

Totally. It’s funny, we’ve been on the other end of sending stuff to people for so long. Before I sent my first album to Tzadik, I picked out five labels that I thought would maybe say yes. For the most part, they were all artist run labels. I didn’t get a word from any of the other ones, other than Zorn—not to mention festivals and press and everything that you submit to—you expect that they’re going to ignore you. I think it is a big responsibility to be on the other end of that and to know that these are other musicians reaching out to us. We listen to every submission we get, but really, the hardest thing is to say no. Even if it’s not right for Chant, they’ve put their heart and soul into it. 

But getting a “no” is still better than silence, which is so disheartening. 

A few times people have followed up, said thank you, and asked, “Can you tell me why?” There was an album that we were really on the fence about. It was musicians we know, but we didn’t feel that it got there. It was like 89 percent there. The artist wanted to talk to me and we had a long conversation. The concept was great. The playing was great. It just didn’t get there all the way. In the end, he ended up agreeing with me and said that he would have done some things differently. 

Do you think artists need to take responsibility for their publicity and the business side of things? 

I’ve always felt that the business was a part of the music. When I was in high school and had a band, I would get a template for our tape, make a master, cut things out, copy, and sell tapes at school or our shows. I learned how to write a press release and to send it out to people. We used to mail post cards out for our shows. Back when a mailing list was a mailing list, not an email list. The first time I played the Washington DC Jewish Music festival—it was 10 or 12 years ago—we were standing around and my friend from college was there. He asked the person who booked the festival, “How’d you hear about Jon and come to book him?” And she answered, not in a humorous way, “He emailed me every month for two years.” [Laughs] I didn’t know that I wasn’t supposed to do that. I didn't email her every week, but it was on my to-do list. I’ve always done that, and maybe a little too much. The thing that I realized with Zion80, which I never had before in a strong way and that people picked up on, was learning to be able to tell your story. And the story is not how great your guitar solos are, or how you take klezmer tunes and put them in odd time signatures and mix it with Frank Zappa—that’s a story to a musician and a music nerd, but that’s not a story to a regular person.

The story I heard with Zion80 is that you put Shlomo Carlebach together with Fela Kuti. Is that what you mean?

That immediately is cross-cultural, it’s these two revolutionary figures. That was the story we were telling, of Jewish Afrobeat. It’s still tied to the music, but it isn’t like a story that you read in something that’s only for musicians. 

You’ll sometimes hear artists—usually not very successful artists—saying they hate self-promotion. But you’re saying the opposite of that. Part of being a musician is advocating for your art and taking responsibility. If you want people to hear your music, you have to get the word out. 

Yes, but I hear what they’re saying, too. We’ve all seen people who seem disingenuous when they’re selling themselves, because what they're selling isn’t real. But when they are selling something that is real—when it’s coming from them and it’s their art and their expression and it goes out from there to telling a story—if it’s done in a genuine way, that’s right. But I understand where people don’t want to self-promote, because it can feel gross to do that in a way that’s disingenuous. 

But if you’re passionate and can’t shut up about it, it becomes a natural extension of talking about what you’re doing.

Exactly. When you have a job, you do the job so you can make money. When you have a mission, you make money so you can do the work. The real compelling musicians are people who are on a mission.

How do you approach festivals?

The festival thing is hard. The best festivals that we’ve played by far are the ones where they find us and invite us. We’ve been very lucky. At the same time, we haven’t done 50 of them, we’ve done about 20. Like with anything, if I am pitching to them, it’s much less likely that anything will come of it than if they come to me. But that being said, I think it is really about how you tell the story and how you present what you’re doing. For example, I made a music video with Zion80. I hired a film maker and an actor and we did this fun video. It’s great, but that’s not the video that I should send to a festival, because it’s not a video of the band performing. If I want them to book me to perform, I should send my best video of me on stage in front of a crowd. That’s common sense, but I don’t think about that, I think, “I spent all this money on the music video, and the sound quality is better, and it looks really cool”—but it’s not a live performance. 

We went to Krakow in 2013 for the Jewish music festival. I had been in touch with that festival for about 10 years—it was like with that poor woman in DC who I bothered—I wrote to them every year for 10 years, and one year we were actually close to going, but it didn’t work. When Zion80 launched, I recorded our first concert, put it up on YouTube, and two weeks later the director of the Krakow festival wrote to me and said, “You’ve got to come to Krakow.” This was after I had written to him about my band Rashanim, and been in touch with him, and met him, for 10 years. He always ended up saying, “I don't think it’s going to work this year.” And that was a band with three people. Zion80 is 10 people. But he said, “You’ve got to come this year.” The crazy thing about that is that I wrote him back and said, “We’re not going to be ready this year, we’ll come next year.” I would have never have thought that I would turn that down, but it wasn’t ready. That was in 2012 and we went in 2013. 

Zion80 must be an expensive band to tour with.

I can’t believe that people have brought us places, they’ve brought us and accommodated us and it’s been great. 

I watched the clips for the 2013 shows, it’s fantastic.

Yeah, that was pretty crazy. As we were going up, somebody said to me, “Have you ever played in front of this many people before?” The big show in Krakow was for about 20,000 people. I said, “If you add up all the shows I have ever done in my life and you multiply that by three, I haven’t played in front of this many people.” That was the first time in a while that I had been legitimately nervous going on stage. I am usually ok with it, but that was crazy.

But the audience was very supportive. 

Oh yeah, they loved it. 

Photo Credits: Madof and Shanir Blumenkranz by Saul Sudin / Madof and Zorn by Scott Friedlander / Zion80 by Ben Weitz