Going to W.A.R.?

The inside story of the little Boulder label that could.

The building at 2401 Broadway in Boulder doesn't blend into the scenery. Designed by the late architect Charles Haertling, whose "mushroom house" made a guest appearance in Woody Allen's 1973 sci-fi comedy Sleeper, it's very large, very white and very space-age. Locals say it looks like a rocket--which makes it an appropriate headquarters for What Are Records? (W.A.R.?), a Boulder-based label that seems on the verge of blasting off.

To call W.A.R.? Colorado's most successful imprint is to damn it with faint praise; after all, there's not much competition out there, especially right now. But unlike countless other area music firms that have been launched with great fanfare only to collapse in a mountain of debt and acrimony, W.A.R.? keeps growing. The enterprise is defined by the Samples, the hard-touring cult band that sparked it to life earlier this decade and continues to generate most of its income; Here and Somewhere Else, issued by the group this summer, is currently W.A.R.?'s hottest product. But the W.A.R.?-related catalogue also includes two highly successful CDs tied to the Reggae on the Rocks concert series; recordings by the Ugly Americans (currently signed to Capricorn Records) and the Radiators; Glass Cockpit, a first-rate offering by House of Large Sizes, an underrated alterna-combo from Iowa; and Munly de Dar He, a wonderfully twisted 1997 platter featuring ex-Boulderite Jayson Munly Thompson that was put out by Top Notch, a W.A.R.? subsidiary. Joining the library late last month was Funk Overload, by Maceo Parker, a onetime saxophonist for James Brown who's recently turned into one of the country's most consistent live attractions. And due on September 29 is Everything I Need, by Melissa Ferrick, a singer-songwriter previously with Atlantic Records.

"This is a unique period for us--the busiest period we've ever gone through," says Rob Gordon, president and founder of W.A.R.? "But it's also one of the best."

Gordon is older than his eleven full-time employees at W.A.R.?, but he's hardly ancient: He's in his mid-thirties. As the Samples' Andy Sheldon admits with a laugh, "It's kind of strange working for a company where the boss is two years younger than I am." Indeed, youth predominates at the W.A.R.? launchpad, as does a decidedly Bouldery attitude toward attire: Mat Hall, a publicist who answers to the title Secretary of Propaganda ("in keeping with the W.A.R.? theme"), confesses that he does most of his work in bare feet. But that's not to imply that business at W.A.R.? is conducted in a laissez-faire manner. Gordon watches his coins like a Nineties Jack Benny, and when he's on a roll, he can spew economic jargon with the best of them. "There are two ways to make money," he says. "You either collect more income or you incur less expenses. And we try very hard to do both."

In the beginning, Gordon was more interested in playing music than marketing it; he was once a member of a high-school band that included Phish guitarist Trey Anastasio. He later moved behind the scenes, rising to the post of A&R director for EMI by the dawn of the Nineties. But a funny thing happened on the way to corporate greatness: He was fired. He subsequently retreated to his New York City apartment and tried to figure out what he should try next, little knowing that the Samples were doing virtually the same thing.

Emerging from Boulder during the last half of the Eighties, the Samples--originally Sheldon, Sean Kelly, Jeep MacNichol and Al Laughlin--eventually hooked up with Arista Records, which put out a self-titled album by the band in 1990. But it didn't take long for the players to become disillusioned. "Arista's roster at the time was made up of Barry Manilow and Whitney Houston and Alan Jackson--they were their bread and butter--and they didn't know what to do with us," Sheldon says. "We signed with them because they said they were starting an alternative-music department, but unfortunately, that never came to fruition. And they certainly didn't have any other artists in our category. The only one that even came close was Urban Dance Squad--and they did manage to get them a hit that was constantly played on MTV for a month or so ["Deeper Shade of Soul," which reached the Top 40 in 1991]. But I haven't heard of Urban Dance Squad since--and if the same thing would have happened to us, I don't think we'd still be around, either." Just as irksome for Sheldon were the layers of bureaucracy that separated the Samples from Arista chieftain Clive Davis. "As far as I was concerned, that guy was the Wizard of Oz. He was like the guy behind the curtain. I never saw him--not once. The people who were working with us would say, 'Clive said this' or 'Clive said that.' And I'd say, 'Show him to me. I just want to know he's real.'"

These factors, combined with album sales that plateaued around 50,000, convinced the Samples to leave Arista. They were ready to put out an EP, Underwater People, on their own when the quartet's manager at the time, Ted Guggenheim, contacted Gordon with a proposition: Start his own company and make the Samples his first signee. Because of the Samples' sizable following, symbolized by a mailing list with tens of thousands of names on it, Gordon jumped at the opportunity.

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