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Label Oral Histories: Bloodshot Records (Part Two)

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Wednesday, October 11, 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
Week 4: Bloodshot Records (Part One)

Label Oral Histories: Bloodshot Records
Part Two

By Jason Gross

To accomodate the length of this particular oral history, we will present it in multiple installments. To view Part One, click here.

*****

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

Rob Miller: Co-founder, Co-owner

Nan Warshaw: Co-founder, Co-owner

Angie Mead: Publicist

*****

The Chicago Scene

Stop Smiling: What was the country scene in Chicago like when the label started?

Rob Miller: I guess I don't know what you mean by "country." I don't consider what we did then country. It was all happening in punk rock clubs. As far as a country scene, I haven't the faintest idea. The bands that we were working with were drawing their inspiration from the same places that we were. I think we tapped into something that really just simmering underground. If anything, we gave it, for better or worse, a name and a central clearing house and we helped foster a community. But I'm not comfortable saying that we were any kind of ground zero or anything

Nan Warshaw: If there was a country scene, we weren't part of it. The scene we're a part of is a subset of the indie rock scene. In Chicago at that time, it was very clearly part of that. I don't think it was a country scene. It didn't have anything to do with commercial country ? even commercial country that was getting played on the radio then. There were certainly ties to traditional country but that's not what was on the radio or anything, nor was it even within our day-to-day existence.

Eric Babcock: My recollection is that there were a lot of local bands and local industry people, like Carrot Top and the women who ran Lounge Ax, who had an affection for whatever you want to call the old school country music, like Hank Williams and George Jones and Lefty Frizzell. Everybody knew it and was aware of it. There would be fringe country artists showing up at Lounge Ax. So everybody had it as a side bar thing that they were into.

And of course the other that was current at the time was Uncle Tupelo. In fact, I remember in one of our earliest meetings ? the three of us in the backroom at a local tavern ? we had the latest edition of Option magazine with Uncle Tupelo on the cover. We thought, "Oh, the ship has sailed. We're too late. Now everybody knows about it." [Laughs] We were plenty wrong. But at the time, that's just how you think of those things. So yeah, Uncle Tupelo was huge in Chicago and a lot of people approached it from that angle ? a rocker mentality or level of awareness and finding old folk or country songs because your favorite rock band played them. I think that was pretty common to a lot of people's involvement or experience.

Nashville and ?alternative country?

SS: What were the pros and cons of working outside the Nashville nexus?

RM: I would say that it was nothing but pluses, because we weren't in a company town. We didn't have anyone giving us a template on what to do so we could just build it up intuitively. What seemed to make sense in relationships to artists and how to run a business without having any real kind of big brothers overlooking us or competing with us. We could just do it at a comfortable pace and do what felt natural. Whereas in a company town like Nashville or L.A. or New York, it's just so hyper-competitive. If something starts to percolate before it has a chance to come to full fruition, you?ve got some guys in $600 suits coming down and snatching it up. I don't really see a downside to being in Chicago. We really wouldn't have flourished anywhere else. We also have a kind of support system here with the clubs and the independent retail and the whole host of other independent labels who draw off of their experience and work with each other. There's really a non-competitive vibe here where artists can jump around to different labels or do this thing with that label or sing on that guy's record. There's no one putting their foot down and saying, "no, you can't do that." It just engenders a really fertile ground for artists.

NW: I don't think our motivation was against Nashville. It was more a reaction to the mediocre rock that we were hearing on the radio at the time and these cookie-cutter bands that were supposed to be the next Nirvana. So it was more looking for something that filled the void of a lot of the old punk rock that we loved when we were in college, and the experience of seeing those bands in little rock clubs. Nashville wasn't even in our radar.

EB: Yeah, you're actually reminding me that the other thing that was going on was commercial country, which was Garth Brooks and all that kind of thing. That became a very convenient thing to point to. We got a lot of traction off of that, saying, ?Fuck Garth Brooks, this is what country music is supposed to sound like." A lot of it seems very pat and simplistic right now. [Laughs] But at the time, you would say, "Fuck the Judds," and people who say, "Wow, how radical!"

Press support

SS: Other than No Depression, what kind of media support did you find early on?

RM: In Chicago, the mainstream media is good. There's some really talented, influential and interesting writers here for the major dailies. There's the Chicago Reader and a couple other publications who paid attention to us early on, and they didn't look at us as some stupid little bothersome background noise. They kind of got what we were trying to do early on and were very supportive, as were people all over the country. It was kind of weird.

NW: We've always focused on press and making sure that we keep writers abreast of what we're doing locally, nationally or wherever the bands are playing. It's certainly a priority. That's the best way we can support our bands on tour is by making sure they getting media attention in the town they're coming to, to make the local people aware of their shows.

A&R

SS: In the beginning, what did you think was the best way to handle A&R for the label?

EB: The most important things for us was that we wanted to work with people that we liked and respected, especially since it wasn't the kind of thing that we were expecting to make money doing. There weren't any resources to screw anybody out of. The fact that we were costing ourselves money to do it reinforced it. We did it for reasons that meant something to us. We do it because we like people and trust them and respect them. That came back to us in pretty significant ways. To me, that's a big reason that Jon Langford found us good to work with, because that's where we were coming from.

SS: He?s also said he loved Bloodshot because you paid him without having to ask for money.

EB: [Laughs] Yeah, well, it's not like we set it out to do it differently than anybody else. We just tried to do what we thought was right. And of course, as it turns out, that angle is very different than the way other folks in the industry approach it.

SS: How did you see A&R for the label?

RM: We're very hands-off. Our involvement with artists ranges from them handing us a finished record we?ve never heard to being in there from day one, helping with the mixing and mastering. It's all up to them. It's their record and how they want to be represented. I'll give them as much or as little input as they want. Who's to say that I'm a better judge of anything than they are? They certainly have enough rope to hang themselves with.

NW: It's changed a lot, but mostly because we went from being a complete hobby to being in the lucky position of having a hobby that turned into a business. Early on, for that first compilation, we just went up to the bands at clubs and said, "Hey, we're putting together this compilation. You want to give us a track?" In most cases, they didn't even have a CD or LP released then. They said, "Oh, we have this demo. You want a song from our demo or a record we're recording?" So it was really easy to just get a song and there was very little of it that was already released. Whereas today, each of us in the office gets a few demos a day or a week. We get a few dozen a week in the office in total. It's crazy in that way, but it's the bands who tour hard and work hard. Also, it's usually word of mouth that grabs our attention more than anything.

SS: What have been your requirements for signing artists to your label?

NW: They've changed a lot since we started. Early on, our sonic scope was much smaller. As we became more established, we've been able to broaden what we do and the kind of bands we work with. Early on, our expectations were completely different. Our needs were different then, too. We just needed to break even on a record and to make the next one. There were no salaries to play. We didn't have employees expecting paychecks. We didn't have artists who were trying to make a living off of their music and expecting us to help support their families. So it's a completely different expectation level today than it used to be. I've become relatively comfortable with it but it's still a weight to know that these artists are depending on us for their livelihood. It?s a hell of a responsibility [Laughs].

SS: Did you find that artists sought out the label or vice versa?

NW: I think it's always been mutual. There are some artists who seek us out, and others where we've sought them out some. It goes both ways or meets in the middle.

SS: Any examples?

NW: I guess the examples I can come up with are more the meeting in the middle, not one extreme or the other. It?s usually just a natural fit to us. Graham Parker had a track on one of our compilations. Then, when he had his next record ready and was looking for a label, he called us up and said, "You guys are the only label that has just sent me a royalty check without asking. It was even just for a compilation, so I wanted to talk to you and see if you were interested in my next record." His record was his idea of a country record at the time. And it made perfect sense for us, having been fans of his anyway. And now, we're working with him in the big picture, not just for a one-off country-ish record.

But with most of our artists, we have a mutual friend, or we've been fans of theirs for years. Jim and Jennie and the Pinetops, we've been fans of theirs for years and we go to their shows. They've contributed tracks to compilations, and they at some point with their old label, Overcoat, decided it was time for them to move on. They came to us and said, "Are you interested?" and we said "Of course!" Most of the time, it's that's natural or organic. Occasionally, there's a new band with a demo and lot of discussion about what that band's going to do. But more often than not, it's a band that has some history and we've already been fans of theirs. Like the Detroit Cobras, we've been listening to their records for years in the office. Then we found out that they were looking for a label and we made them an offer. It made sense to them and to us at the time. It wouldn't have made sense for us to work with them five years ago but it does today.

SS: Why is that?

NW: I don't think we were in a position to do for them five years ago what we can today in terms of supporting a band at that level. Our sound was narrower then. Today, it's broader, which we're comfortable doing

SS: What's the label looking for in an artist?

RM: First and foremost, we have to like it. [Laughs] That sounds kind of dumb, but I've genuinely loved so much of what we do. I think they need to have realistic expectations. Sonically, what we're looking for is someone who's capable of the messaging and molesting of roots forms in a new and interesting way. They're taking their musical baggage and doing something new and interesting with it. It happens unfortunately too much with some people that they just kind of pigeonhole and put it up on some sort of shelf and give it some sort of dumb label. That just makes me nuts, because if you just listen to the whole body of work that we've released over the years, I think it's quite a broad spectrum.

SS: For the artists you sign, do you look for them or vice versa or a combo of that?

RM: Yes. It has happened when there's a name we haven't heard of all that just drops out of the sky and then fall in love with. Or, it?s people we've been friends with for years, but it wasn't possible to do a record, and then things evolve and we?re able to. That happened with Ryan Adams; that happened with Bobby Bare Jr. It's happened with a couple of project we got coming up in the spring. It happened with the Bottle Rockets. The whole notion of the compilations that we do, it's not so much any kind of proprietary notion on our part. These are just bands that we like and make music that we like, whether they're on our label or not. If we can work with them more, then great. If not, we still want to help them in their careers. And we still enjoy going to see them and we still enjoy putting their music on our compilations even if it's just one song at a time

SS: In terms of the work you do now, how do you see the label's role in terms of A&R?

AM: I was hired on to do national publicity here, but then with the background that I had as a concert promoter, I was obviously exposed to a lot of different music. I was a concert promoter at Abbey Pub for three or four years, so I got a really good sense of what the label was and the music they put out and the type of people working behind the music. It was always something that I respected, and I was very happy to become part of the family when I was asked. As a promoter, I saw how much promotion they put into their bands and that was really appealing. I was a big Bobby Bare Jr. fan at the time, too. I?ve lived in Chicago for about 10 years, and I've watched the music that's come out of the label for about seven or eight years. I've always been very respectful of it.

When I came to work at Bloodshot, in addition to being the publicist, I was also out pretty much every night of the week, looking for things to bring to the label. We definitely don't want to be pegged as ?that alt-country label.? We're looking for things that are not necessarily that to kind of expand the idea of what people might have about the label right now. So, with the ten-year anniversary coming up, the eye is on adding new people to the roster.

SS: When you're looking for new bands to sign, is it you coming to them or vice versa?

AM: We get tons and tons of demo tapes and they're all pretty much horseshit. [Laughs] You can't really depend on the demo tapes. It's just really about getting out there and knowing what's going on and knowing what bands have draw and what bands have good music. Then you just take it from there. We're always bombarded with people who want to be on the label, but not a lot of the demos we get are very appealing, so it's just going out and being aware of what's going on in Chicago and other places.

SS: How many demos do you get in a week?

AM: About 15 or so.

SS: And how many acts do you sign up?

AM: There's no number. This year we signed three new artists. There?s no set number, but in 2005 we signed three new acts: Scott Biram, Jim and Jennie and the Pinetops, Detroit Cobras, the Dead String Brothers. So this year, we had a really good year. Last year, I don't believe we signed any new acts. We were really focused on Bobby Bare Jr.'s record. He was a big priority for us at the time so we spent most of last year pushing him and getting him out into the public eye. We wanted to put all our energy into the artist development for him. The focus wasn't really signing new bands at that point. But with our ten-year anniversary coming up, we wanted to start a little fresh and add some new people to the roster.

SS: In terms of development, could you give some examples of how you worked with them to help get the word out about them?

AM: For instance, I just went out to Norway two weeks ago and we brought Devil in A Woodpile out there. They're a band that's been with us from the very beginning. This is a band that's been playing at the Hideout for nine years running. They're just this excellent band that really should be expanding into other places where people are going to appreciate what they're doing so an opportunity arose at SXSW, where there was someone from Norway who was really interested in the band. We worked for four months confirming a tour for them out there. I took the band out and managed their tour and talked with different promoters and distributors and spread the good word about Bloodshot and about the band, in hopes that we can get them back out there fo a couple thousand-capacity blues festivals. So just little things like that... You kind of focus on what a band's strong point is, and just go from there.

The Detroit Cobras, being their publicist, I knew very well that they had a following and what not, but honestly I never heard a lick of their music before we signed them. I thought it was important to go out to Detroit and hang out with these guys for two or three days and just absorb the feel of what they're about before I try to write a press release about them and push them to people. It wouldn't be very fair to them if I didn't know what the hell I was talking about! [Laughs] So, just little things like that make the artist feel like they're being prioritized at the label and it helps us to just understand their culture and their reality too, which helps us sell them to people and promote them to people. The famous ?handshake deal?

SS: I heard that Ryan Adams got signed by a handshake in a bathroom at SXSW. Was that unusual for Bloodshot?

EB: No, that was more the norm. Again, that grew from knowing people as people first and artists second. You assume you can trust people and if people know they can trust you, that'll work. Sometimes the stakes get a little higher and it doesn't always hold up under pressure but it's still the best place to start.

RM: No, that's the way still seeming to happen. We work with people as much, because we get along with them as any other reason. Life's short: Why work with people you hate? But that's the way. How did we meet Neko Case? It's because Kelly Hogan met a writer who liked her and then we went out boozing in New York. That's how we meet the Sadies. It's all very organic that way. I would say it's far more atypical for the scenario where we hear a demo or we approach a band and we have a proposal and we meet with lawyers and map out some brilliant strategy.

NW: We did paperwork after that with Ryan, but that's how ? certainly early on ? all our deals were just talking to people who we were already friendly with. Whiskeytown slept on my couch and in my living room when they came through town every time. They stayed on my floor. We knew those guys. We already had some of Ryan's tracks or Whiskeytown's tracks on compilations and seven inches. He was really between major labels and said, "I want to get this record out now. It's not right for the next major label. It's way more lo-fi and country. Do you guys want to do it?" Rob was talking to him about it and Rob was like "Sure!" Things today still often happen that naturally. I think that's how it should be.

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