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Label Oral Histories: Bloodshot Records

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Monday, October 09, 2006

As part of a six-week online series, STOP SMILING will be posting oral histories from the founders of several successful independent record labels who have helped shape the Chicago music scene. Included are insights from the staffs of Touch and Go, Thrill Jockey, Brilliante Records, Bloodshot, Flameshovel and Hefty Records. These posts will appear on Mondays throughout October.

View previous posts here
Week 1: Touch and Go
Week 2: Thrill Jockey
Week 3: Brilliante Records

Label Oral Histories: Bloodshot Records
Part One

By Jason Gross

To accomodate the length of this particular oral history, we will present it in multiple installments. Part Two will post later in the week.

*****

Eric Babcock: Co-founder, co-owner until 1997; now runs Catamount Records

Rob Miller: Co-founder, Co-owner

Nan Warshaw: Co-founder, Co-owner

*****

Humble Origins

Stop Smiling: What work were you doing before Bloodshot?

Eric Babcock: My first job out of college was with Alligator Records. I met those people because I used to do the blues radio show in school. I used to get all their records and go to all their parties. That was sort of borne out of an original love of roots music. It was probably blues first and country later, just because I grew up in rural Michigan. Country was what most of the folks around there had as the common denominator, and I hated it. I distanced myself from it as long as possible, until my head cleared and I realized it was cool. [Laughs]

I worked for Alligator and I also worked for Flying Fish Records, which is what I was doing when I met Nan and Rob. Flying Fish had put out a record by a Texas band called Killbilly and at some point, Nan had become their publicist. I think it started just as a super-fan type of thing. Then she was just being a publicist on a shingle. [Laughs] She knew me as somebody at Flying Fish through the connection with them. It was her idea to start Bloodshot. She and Rob had personal and professional connections that went back earlier.

Nan Warshaw: I was doing a variety of things. DJ-ing in punk bars, but also doing country nights. I was doing some independent booking, publicity ? a variety of indie, DIY stuff in the music business, just working with bands that I was friendly with and liked. Also, I was bartending and cocktailing and managed a bar for a while. I had also worked in the not-for-profit sector, in a few different areas. But I founded this used music organization in Evanston that helped high school kids promote and produce their own live music.

SS: How did you meet up with Rob?

NW: I was DJ-ing a country night at Crash Palace and he was hanging out there when I was DJ-ing and kept making requests and that's how we met.

SS: I've heard that you were both sitting around, jotting down ideas that maybe you should do a label?

NW: No, it was: "Maybe we should put out a compilation of these bands that were playing around Chicago at the time, that were playing in the dive rock clubs we were hanging out at, but there was some thread of old school country running through all their music." So we identified that and said, "Wouldn't it be cool to put out a compilation of those bands?" We started making notes and lists. When we came up with over 20 bands, we thought, "Hey, we should be able to get enough good songs off it." So it was really just a snapshot of the Chicago scene at the time. I suppose the subset of the indie rock scene was this burgeoning insurgent country scene.

SS: At the time, did you have any plans past doing the compilation?

NW: No, not really. I think it would have been, assuming some unrealistic things to think that we could do more than that at the time. With that compilation, and our first year or two of releases, it was: "Let's put out this record, we like the band, want to help them." Then, when that record breaks even, we're like, "Wow, we can do another record!" There was no big strategy. Intentionally, we didn't get investors involved. We just each put in a few thousand bucks and when one record broke even, we said, "Let's do another!"

SS: What did you do before Bloodshot started?

Rob Miller: Rehabbing houses, carpentry and painting, doing some music writing. Before that I'd been a production manager for a concert promoter in the Detroit area. I worked with everything from Nirvana when they were doing clubs to things like Pixies and Jane's Addiction to LL Cool J and whatever came through in everything from small clubs to 2000-3000 seat venues. I met Nan when I moved to Chicago. A friend of mine who already lived here said that there was this really cool punk rock bar and they actually had a country night on Wednesday's at a place called Crash Palace. We went and drank a lot and listened to the music. I kept going every Wednesday and then I would make request. I'd say things like, "Hey, you ever heard this?" And she got annoyed the point where she said, "Why don't you just DJ sometime?" It just slid downhill from there. [Laughs]

SS: Where did the idea for the compilation come from?

RM: Honestly, we didn't know any better. We didn't know what was involved. This was '93. We started to see grunge Gap ads on buses and Flipper was signed to a major label all of a sudden and the Circle Jerks and the whole underground rock thing just became another commodity. And Chicago was the next Seattle with the Smashing Pumpkins and Liz Phair and Urge Overkill. We were going to these clubs, seeing all these bands that no one was paying attention to and they all had this kind of thread of roots running through them. We thought, "Wouldn't it be neat to put together a compilation with all this kind of stuff and press up 1,000 of them and see what happens?"

SS: How were you involved in this discussion about doing their first compilation?

RB: My primary involvement came from the fact that neither one of them knew much about the practicalities of making records- whereas what I had been doing at Flying Fish was all about production and design and a lot of the nuts and bolts stuff. I also knew about promotion and distribution and all the things you do once the record is made, again from working at Alligator and other labels. So they sort of tapped me as somebody with practical experience.

SS: Initially, Nan and Rob said they just wanted to do the one album. Is that how you saw it?

RB: Yeah. I mean, they talked to me about it as a one-off thing. As we discussed the aesthetics of it, we were only thinking of what was happening in Chicago. We thought it was a shame more people didn't know about it. I used to go to clubs all the time and had seen all those people play, so I recognized also what was happening in the scene. This was before you could just make your own record and put it out, so all these people who we thought more than worthy were going to have something to call their own.

Sometimes we'd meet artists kind of like not knowing any better. It's like, "I'll ask anybody for anything." That's how we met Jon Langford. Rob and I were just scared of him. We knew him by reputation: "Oh, I can't talk to him..." Nan just said, "Fuck it, I'll talk to him." And she didn't really know who he was. [Laughs]

SS: When the three of you were putting this together, what was your role?

RB: It started as the practical parts of it. You know what happens with that obsession thing. You start to think, "My name is going to be on this, so it's got to be as good as it can be from every conceivable angle." You just stay up nights thinking, "Okay, what can be better." We worked like dogs! [Laughs] Just getting the sequence right and having the best kind of artwork and just trying to make it all sort of a piece. We all just got sucked into it. We did a couple of record release parties and got a couple of write-ups in the paper. That just starts to spin and creates a vortex and then you're stuck.

The label begins

SS: Where did the name Bloodshot come from?

RM: You know, I looked in the mirror one day... I wish there was a really clever story about it. [Laughs] I've always like Wynonne Harris- he's got a great song "Bloodshot Eyes." And yeah, I was just kind of hung-over one day and we had some sort of meeting to figure out what we were going to call ourselves and kind of had a good ring to it I guess.

SS: How did it turn into that? What was the reaction to the first release?

RM: This was before the Internet, so we would do research at the libraries or I would be on tour with a band and we would see what papers or magazines or record stores we could mail this thing to and kind of spread the word a little bit. We started to get responses back from writers and from fans, saying, "Hey, we've got this kind of band here doing the same thing." Then the second compilation, which was national acts, had Old 97's on it, the Bottle Rockets, Richard Buckner, Tarnation, people from all over the country. Then shortly after that, we put out the first Waco Brothers record and the first Old 97's record and we'd go to CMJ and we put together a little guerilla afternoon barbeque thing in the Lower East Side and there was a line down the block. We were just standing there going, "What? What a minute..." [Laughs] It snowballed from there.

SS: How have you split the duties with Nan?

RM: The shorthand is that I'm the forest, she's the trees. [Laughs] She's good at the lawyer-ing, the licensing, the kind of working on the minutia of running a business and getting business things done and taking care of that. I'm doing more of the big picture what-are-we-doing-a-year-from now things. I'm already worrying about the spring. Early on especially, I was doing all the production work and on the road more with the artists and in the studio with them.

SS: Then and now, how did you split duties between you and Rob?

NW: It's happened really organically between us and with our staff here as we went along. It?s not on any grand plan. It's really whoever's best at doing what or whoever takes over what duties [Laughs]. We certainly have always both done the A&R side of things but I'm better at the legal and contractual side of things and detail-orientated stuff, so I do that. Rob, in the early years, spent a lot of time in the studio with bands. We don't nearly need to do that as much these days and he's not in the studio as much. Like the compilations that we do, he sequences and masters those and that's a hell of a lot of work. He has the ears in the studio. I certainly love what he comes up with there and wouldn't want to interfere. I just let him do his thing, because he's great at it. I do a lot of the office, managerial stuff, dealing with the basics of a running a business: insurance, employee relations. Although, because we're a small office and have just five full-time staff besides Rob and I, our personal relationships with everyone is important.

SS: Gradually, Nan and Rob said that they found positions for what they did at the label. What role did you find yourself in later?

RB: I started doing a lot of the publicity stuff. I remember there was one point when the first record came out, we didn't really think of it having much appeal beyond Chicago but once we had gotten our feet wet with it a bit and felt that it had been well accepted in Chicago, we thought, "Well, why not? Let's send it to other places where they might listen to it and maybe even review it." So we sent it to the free weekly papers in a whole bunch of different markets and we got back great responses from that. That was kind of shocking... Again this was before there was a huge glut of records. I remember a great review in the Nashville Scene. I thought, "It's amazing that they would dedicate the column inches to it," which is not very likely to happen today.

It was at that point that I started to realize that this thing that's happening in Chicago has resonance elsewhere. We knew that there were other bands in other places that had the same approach or attitude or treated country music the same way. Are you familiar with Diesel Only? They had done these compilations. It's sort of hard to imagine the first Bloodshot Record without that label and the Rig Rock compilations.

Inspirations

SS: What kind of inspiration did you draw from other labels that preceded you?

RM: Well, certainly from my perspective, the first labels that I noticed that I really liked all the music on and could trust. I always had a strong affinity for strong label identity ? like SST or Dischord, some of the later Sub Pop stuff, but going back to Stax. I'm from Detroit so there's always the Motown thing. Also Fortune Records and labels like that. I always liked the way that those things had a consistency to them. Then, also knowing some of the early goings-on at Touch and Go, and knowing the relationships that bands had with labels like SST ? you didn't have to be a businessperson to do this stuff really. You just had to be a music fan and you shouldn't let a lack awareness of how the regular industry goes. You shouldn't let that stop you.

RB: Not as entities onto themselves. What I remember the scene being like was more about different labels having like a token roots act? That's too pejorative, I don't mean it that way but it wasn't the main thrust of those labels. I think we started to tumble to the fact that we could be all about those fringe roots artists ? make that the whole reason for being there.

NW: The other labels we were looking toward were labels like... Twin/Tone, Amphetamine Reptile, Dischord, Alternative Tentacles... Any label that really... but then I'd say going back even farther, Motown, Stax. Labels that had an identifiable sound and image. I think, looking at the modern labels that we knew, like Touch and Go and stuff, they were also models for how to do business. Or, even better, how not to do business. [Laughs] They chose not to do business in the more traditional major label ways and so we certainly respect the way that they did their business and wanted to operate like them and not like most of the music industry?

SS: What kind of artists were you looking to help define the label?

RB: Having been paying attention to the scene for the longest time, we all had our favorites. Old 97's were a no-brainer that sort of devolved automatically from the whole Killbilly experience. Rhett Miller and Murray from 97's were actually in the last touring version of Killbilly and they would open shows as Old 97's. So that was an easy one. And bands like the Bottle Rockets. We'd seen the Bottle Rockets a hundred times. We were familiar with acts in other markets that we had actually been to. The cool thing was, as we sent out records to reviewers or radio stations in sort of far-flung places, it was more common than not for people to write back and say, "It's great what you're doing. Here's a band from (wherever they were) that you ought to check out."

There was a band in Kansas City called the Starkweathers. They were just fucking awesome. They had soulful, rootsy chops and they had punk fury and they had socialist politics. They were just amazing. Unfortunately they imploded from strife within the group. But that was a big one for me.

NW: Well, I don't know if we knew what we were looking for that well. But early on, we certainly found it in the Waco Brothers. I would say that they were our flagship band at the beginning and knew better what we were about than we did. The first track that Jon Langford gave us for that first compilation. We heard it and tears came to our eyes. We thought, "This is it. He knows more what we're about than we do."

SS: What was that exactly?

NW: I think it was a song "Over the Cliff.? It had melody and roots and country elements and it was fun. But also, it was also sarcastic and dark. So it appealed to what we loved about traditional country music, which in many ways, we were just discovering at that time. It worked with our punk rock sensibilities that we had grown up with.

Part Two of this oral history will post later in the week

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