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Label Oral Histories: Bloodshot Records (Part Three)

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Sunday, October 15, 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

Label Oral Histories: Bloodshot Records
Part Three

By Jason Gross

To accomodate the length of this particular oral history, it has been presented in three installments. Click here for Part One and Part Two.

*****

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

Jon Langford: Artist, member of the Waco Brothers

*****

The Bloodshot Audience

Stop Smiling: When the label launched, who was your audience?

Eric Babcock: I remember being surprised a couple different times when we had record release parties. One of the biggest corners we turned was when we did the second compilation with national acts. We had two nights of record release parties at the Empty Bottle in Chicago. It's still one of the most vital venues in the city, and we actually sold it out on two nights during a frigid Chicago winter.

I remember watching people come through the door. Of course there were a lot of people like us ? our same demographic, age wise and that sort of thing. But we would get older folks, too, and some younger folks. But in a lot of ways, you need to be older to care about roots music. There was a pretty interesting range of people paying attention ? people in straight punk regalia and doing a country-western dress-up. People would find different angles that spoke to them. That was good to see.

Rob Miller: In the beginning, I thought it was people like me ? people who had always associated themselves with music outside the mainstream and who were maybe getting a little too old the kind of smash-the-state rhetoric of punk rock. They were at a place in life where the themes of roots music were speaking a little bit more to them, but they didn't like the mainstream stuff. They liked the adventurousness and the fucked-up nature of what some of the people we were working with were doing with this kind of music. They still enjoyed drinking beer and going to smaller clubs. Now, I haven't the faintest idea. I think that we're big enough and the music that we're doing is broad enough that I don't even pretend that someone who likes Artist A will like Artist B just because they?re on the label. Some of our acts appeal to a far straighter country audience, and some are total rock. Why would someone who likes Robbie Fulks also like the Detroit Cobras? They don't and it doesn't matter. In my head, it all strings together. There's a sonic thread that holds it all together. I guess I just got to ignore what other people think and run with that. Once you establish yourself and sell X-number of records, you lose track of who your audience is.

Babcock leaves

SS: How many years did you work for the label?

EB: We started in the fall of '93, and I left in the spring of '97. Three and a half years.

SS: Why did you leave?

EB: Things had gotten kind of acrimonious among the three of us. It's the kind of thing where you're doing what you're doing as a labor of love and you're really obsessed about it and you're really in deep with it and I think that it just rubbed us raw in a lot of ways.

There was never open hostility but we were just ... I was sick of them! [Laughs] I feel pretty sure that they were sick of me, too. I do remember getting a little bit of distance on it and thinking, When we started out, we would drive from Chicago to Austin in one car in one shot and just highball in 12 hours and sleep on floors and do whatever. It was like being in a band ? we're committed to this project, we'll do whatever it takes. I remember hearing about some band at the time ? I can't remember the name ? but they were doing a show in Chicago and they had driven from Detroit in four separate cars. I thought it must be really unpleasant to work with someone that closely and not even being able to stand them for that four-hour road trip. Sure enough, that was us three years later, taking three cars to Austin.

My job at Flying Fish had ended at the end of '95, so I didn't have that check coming in. The great thing is that I had unemployment for six months, so I was able to do nothing but Bloodshot. I was there 14-16 hours a day sometimes, because there's always shit to do. We had a couch and I'd sleep on it every once in a while. Of course, the more work you put into it, the more work it generates for you to do on the follow-up. I was in deep. I was fairly well hooked and kept doing it at the same level, with the same commitment and intensity, even when I started draining my own personal account in the hopes that continuing to hit it at that level would shake loose some revenue as returns for the effort.

The fact is that never really started to happen while I was there. At one point we got enough money back so we all got a check. It turns out that was sort of the beginning of rounding that corner, but at the time, that one check wasn't enough to sustain me. Meanwhile I had other projects I was really interested in and really committed to. I didn't feel we were going to get a good home at Bloodshot. I found some other people, including a financier, who allowed me to break off and start something else.

SS: After you left, did you listen to any Bloodshot records?

EB: Not many of them! They don't send them to me. [Laughs]

SS: From what you have heard, what are your thoughts about the label since then?

EB: I don't know. Actually one of the things that was going on while I was leaving was the whole Ryan Adams relationship. I just never cared for him. I could understand the fervor he generated, especially with the Whiskeytown live experience.

SS: But you weren't a fan of his music?

EB: No. I did understand that people at Geffen, they saw him as a horse to bet on and they were putting a lot of resources into him. Then his record for the major label for Whiskeytown sounded like shit to me. I felt vindicated, aesthetically-speaking, but of course that's a stupid way to approach a business. I thought that they approached it from a different business angle. But Whiskeytown wasn't anybody's favorite band.

SS: What there anything else that struck you about the label and how it grew? Did that surprise you?

EB: Yes and no. On the one hand, I knew that everybody's heart was basically in the right place and that we all professed admiration for the same models of business. In Chicago, the paragon is Touch and Go: the deals they do, the way they work with their artists and the way they treat their people. From the earliest days, we'd said we wanted to be the Touch and Go of alternative country. From that aspect, I'd say no, it's not surprising at all.

SS: The Adams deal certainly helped.

EB: It's also learning from your mistakes. With the Old 97's, they made their first record for a friend in Dallas who financed them. Then, when their aspirations got bigger, they realized that doing a record with us would be a smart move, so we basically threw ourselves into that project without doing any pre-nups. We had just assumed that they were our band to work with. Their record had come out in '95 and within a year of that, we knew they were going somewhere else.

Again, it's one of those things where that had as many bad repercussions as the whole Ryan Adams thing had good. If we had our shit straight going into that, we all would?ve been making decent money, and we all would?ve kept doing what we were doing and I'd still be there. But it didn't happen that way.

Changes and future plans

SS: Within your own job, what kind of things have you seen change?

Angie Mead: Since I've been here, Rob takes a lot more vacations! [Laughs] Things aren't done the same way as when they were when they started the label. I think they're seeing that they have to be a little more aggressive with marketing and signing bands. We can't really depend on retail stores to be pushing our CDs. We have to try to expand. To expand overseas, there's this huge market in Scandinavia, where all these Norwegians dress up as cowboys. I think we've all recognized that we have to do things a little bit differently than they were done 10 years ago.

SS: What are the label?s future plans?

AM: It?s definitely not in our best interest to just keep sustaining. In my opinion, it's being on the lookout for bands that need to be develop and looking for bands that people want to hear and just making it available to the people that want to hear it. To sustain, to just come in and work from 9 to 5 and sell Ryan Adams records isn't very appealing to me. I'd really like to see some groundbreaking stuff happen again, like it did with Ryan Adams 10 years ago. With our anniversary here, it's the perfect time to start advancing a little bit and constantly keeping our eye out for good music that you want to make available to people.

SS: In an ideal world, which artists would you like to work with on Bloodshot?

NW: Right now, I'm working with most of the artists I want to. I don't know who else we'd want to work with. They'd have to want to work with us and it would have to make sense. We would have to be the best label for them as well. I could say some big names like Neil Young or Emmylou Harris, but I don't know if we'd be the best place for them. So I think that the artists I'm hoping to work with I may not even yet know about. They're just some new exciting artists finding a different way to infuse their indie rock with some elements of roots.

I hope we can sell more records for our bands, but I'm not looking to have the label turn into something completely different. We have no desire to become a subsidiary of any major. I hope that we can just keep working with bands whose music we love and with artists we respect and are still able to have fun with for five or 10 years from now. With the way business is going, I never would?ve guessed we would still have a label. Five years ago, I couldn't have said we would still be in business today. Not that things looked bad, but that?s the nature of the business ? it's fickle, it's brutal. The demise of independent retail really takes a toll on indie labels. I just hope we can just doing what we're doing and working with great bands.

Jon Langford

Starting with the influential political British punk band the Mekons, Langford has carved a unique place in popular music history, while also making a name as a writer, comic artist and painter. His many solo and side projects include the Waco Brothers, the Pine Valley Cosmonauts and Jon Langford & His Sadies. Here he speaks about his longtime affiliation with Bloodshot Records.

SS: How did you first connect with Bloodshot?

JL: They approached me in a bar in Chicago. I met Rob back in the ?80s ? he was at a college radio station in Ann Arbor, but I?d forgotten about him. I guess there were the three of them: Eric Babcock was involved as well at the time, and Rob and Nan were in a bar in Chicago. They heard that I had moved to town, so they came up to me and asked if I would be interested in doing a track for an album of local country and western music, which I thought was frankly ridiculous.

SS: Why was that?

JL: I didn't know there was any local Chicago country and western music. I knew about the Sundowners, this bar I used to go to, but I wasn't really aware of any thriving local scene. They asked me to record a track and they heard that me and Dean from the band Wreck had been going around playing a little bit, doing some covers of country and western songs. So I wrote a song for their album, ?Over the Cliff,? which was kind of about Hank Williams meets Kurt Cobain.

SS: Why did you want to keep working with them?

JL: They sent me a check. That's the honest to god truth. No one had ever sent me a check unsolicited before. So when the album had been out for a while, they sent me a check. I was completely confused. You usually had to go around and twist arms. In England, the unspoken rule of independent record labels is that they don't pay you. They're all very nice and very friendly and they love your music, but they never give you any money. And if you ask for it, you're some kind of sell out. It was quite unusual. I think it was the first record label that ever sent me any money without me having to ask for something or me having to sign away some rights.

The Waco Brothers were kind of bubbling up at that time as well. They asked us if we wanted to make a record with the Waco Brothers, so it was like a series of invitations from them. They saw my artwork and they wanted to use it for the sleeves, because that fit in perfectly with their kind of vision of a more serious rootsy approach to country music with sort of a punk overtone. At that time, everything was: "We are new country." In 1994, it was a pretty bad time for country music. Commercial country was at its peak at that point. Bloodshot had this idea that there was something darker and weirder and stranger about old country music that had been denied. That's exactly the same feeling I had myself.

SS: You must have heard the compilation, and did that cement your opinion about Bloodshot?

JL: Well, on the first one, it was only solo, because that was before the Wacos were really playing. But yeah, I thought it was an interesting record. Lonesome Bob was on that, Robbie Fulks was on it. Even the Handsome Family might have been on it. It was just a funny time. I didn't make the connection that there was any kind of scene going on. It was all people who were interested in traditional American roots music who also happened to be punk rockers. After a while, I was grateful to them for the opportunity to do things. I don't think they really thought they were setting up a label as such. Then they thought they saw something going on, and they wanted to document it. I think it was a surprise to everyone that they'd still be going now.

SS: When they started working with you as the Wacos, how did they work with you to get the record out and promoted?

JL: Eric Babcock was pretty hands-on. He would always be at the recording studio and at our gigs, talking about stuff. Even with the second record, when I was writing songs, he was contributing lyrics. I was pretty friendly with Eric. I got pretty friendly with all of them, to be honest. So I was quite upset when he left, but I could understand why, with three fairly powerful personalities trying to run something like that. He left after Cowboys In Flames, so I don't know what happened after that. The first album was just us trying to find our feet and work out a way of doing it. By the time we did the second album, I thought the whole thing had come together really strong. I think they saw the album as a personification of the kind of music they were trying to get together.

SS: What about your relationship with the label after that?

JL: It's been pretty solid. After that, we kind of got into the Pine Valley Cosmonauts thing, because they started importing this Johnny Cash record (Misery Loves Company) that I made for a German label. Again, that just this kind of weird thing where this guy in Germany said, "Would you make a Johnny Cash record?" and I was like, "I don't know, I could do it I suppose..." He said, ?Here's some money ? go and do it." We really got into it, and we formed the Pine Valley Cosmonauts to do it because, at that time, we felt Johnny Cash was terribly neglected. I think that was before the Rick Rubin material came out, and he was dropped by Columbia and MCA after that. I met him around that time. With hindsight, I can actually say that he was at the bottom of his career, artistically, even though he could go on big tours and sell out big theatres, doing his hits. He had a real problem feeling that he was washed up and irrelevant. It was a real gift that Rick Rubin gave him.

SS: What do you think of alternative country music now?

JL: Now they're at the point where that thing ? the alternative insurgent country is what they called it ? I think now that it's a little overplayed. You have so many bad bands out there impersonating Gram Parsons. I just hear a lot of badly played country music with unimaginative lyrics and lot of attitude and shtick ? a lot of battered cowboys hats and image. It doesn't really ring true to me.

I look as far back as 1998: We made that record Skull Orchid, which was basically a rock record. I don't think there's any sort of country record on it at all, really. We were out touring in Canada and Oklahoma and places like that with me, Steve Goulding and Alan Doughty ? every night, there would just be some band with dungarees and straw hats doing a crappy version of what Bloodshot started out as. It was almost like we created a monster. I think the position that Bloodshot is in now is that they managed to run a record label for over 10 years, putting out a really broad variety of music. I don't like everything on Bloodshot, but there are some things on the label that I think are really fantastic. I mean, look at Bobby Bare Jr. I don't see that as anything to do with a narrow alternative country groove that people talk about. And the Sadies, as well. They moved on, Neko's moved on. But Alejandro, what he was doing was something very different. Graham Parker is on there now. They can do whatever they want, I feel. I just think that as long as it's good, they don't have to really worry about it fitting into some kind of box.

SS: What kind of job has Bloodshot done building an audience for your work?

JL: I can't imagine anyone doing it better. It's a really difficult thing to do. Just the fact that they've had the label going for so long and they've marked it as kind of a little brand name. If you go to SXSW, you want to go to the Bloodshot party. At CMJ, there's always a Bloodshot barbeque. It's never really got out of control, even when there was a period when the major labels were sniffing around. The Old 97's went off and signed to a major deal, and Robbie Fulks signed a major deal. Everyone thought this scratchy punk-rock country music was going to be the next thing after grunge, which we thought was hilarious.

If you look at this alternative country scene, a lot of it's really bland. It?s really a broad church, when you come to think of it. If you look in a magazine like No Depression, it can be relied up to write favorably about a lot of the things I do. I'm quite grateful for that, that there's some sort of forum. But No Depression is mostly a magazine for singer-songwriters, which is of course the sort of music I started playing music to destroy, frankly. That's the sort of music that I hated most in the world, was whining singer-songwriters with acoustic guitars. God knows I've almost become one on a couple of occasions.

SS: But it's a different type I think.

JL: Well, yeah. Bloodshot has never gone that road. It was certainly comfortable for me to have the Mekons come to Chicago and be with Touch and Go, and the Wacos with Bloodshot. It was just the best period of my involvement in the music business, by a mile. The last 10 years have easily been the most satisfying and productive time for me. Sometimes you think it's great to be battling and fighting all the time, but once you've been on three major labels, you've fucking had it with that, to be quite honest.

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