If you listen to commercial radio in Denver, you might be inclined to think that there were only about seventeen new albums released in the year 2000. (How else could the curious state of local playlists be explained?)
But actually, the approximate number of CDs released in the United States last year hovers somewhere near the 700,000 mark. Forget about the quality of the music encoded on those many discs: From a purely logistical standpoint, that's an assload of plastic, one that suggests that the indie-label underworld is alive and well.
From sea to shining sea, scores of indie-label owners are still busy putting out lots of weird, cool, obscure little records -- knowing full well that once postage is paid for, distribution is taken care of, tray cards are printed, etc., etc., ad infinitum, they'll be lucky to break even on that kick-ass new full-length from Broken Headband or whoever. This is not exactly a stable existence. But it's also kind of a fun one -- in a masochistic kind of way. At least, that's the way the operators of three very different new local labels choose to look at it.
"Basically, we are doing everything differently from what the majors are doing," says Seth Goldberger, who, with partner David Landsberger, operates Lauan Records, which the pair started as students at Brown University in 1998 before relocating to Colorado the following year. "We don't have the time or the money to convince America that they love a boy band. We are only interested in putting out music that we both love."
Like many indie upstarts, Lauan was formed more as a creative outlet than a capitalist venture. Bound by a shared interest in jam bands -- a genre Goldberger defines broadly, not just in the hippie terms often associated with it -- the pair wanted to document what they saw as an important music scene. Using the equipment available to Brown students, they began recording Rhode Island bands and eventually recruited three artists from different parts of the country (Day by the River, Jiggle the Handle and Vinyl) for a compilation project titled Three Sets. The release was well received, and Goldberger and Landsberger decided to expand Lauan into a bona fide business. Since then, it has released a second Three Sets volume (a third is slated for April), as well as a full-length recording from Day by the River (the release, Watermarks, is touted as the first full-length encoded MP3 CD, a chunky eight-hour recording culled from live performances) and They Live, from San Diego funk band Wise Monkey Orchestra.
Lauan's emphasis on jammy music gave its owners an artistic direction -- and a handy niche market. According to Goldberger, sales of all of its releases have been steady as fans of elongated guitar solos the world over catch wind of the Boulder company. "I shipped an order to Uganda a couple of weeks ago," he says. "I think there are lots of people who love this music. There's definitely an audience for it, but aside from the bigger bands, it's hard to find out about the smaller, regional bands that might be just as good."
Musically, Goldberger's label has little in common with Berserker Records, a Denver-based upstart operated by music fiend (and former Westword scribe) Brad Jones. Yet like Lauan, Berserker's origins lie in its operator's obsession with a certain kind of music -- in Jones's case, the rawking kind, with lots of big, beefy guitars.
"The music is rock and roll, and a lot of it is what was kind of lumped together and called 'stoner rock,'" Jones says. "The idea was basically to revert to the kind of music that I grew up with. Stuff like Black Sabbath -- records I was listening to when I first started getting into music."
Started in late 1999, Berserker was initially affiliated with the nationally distributed, locally based Game 2 Records; now wholly independent, with a staff of two, the label's catalogue includes titles from more than twelve bands from around the country -- including Sour Vein, Spickle, Soulpreacher and Weedeater, whose most recent release, And Justice for Y'All, is the label's bestseller to date. And though Jones operates the label from his basement office in Highlands Ranch, many of Berserker's artists hail, quizzically, from the South -- where they whistle Dixie in front of enthusiastic local audiences.
"It's really kind of strange," Jones says. "There are places where there really aren't that many good rock bands. There are a lot of mediocre ones all over. But in the South, there are an amazing number of great ones -- and people just go crazy for them down there."
Like many indies that find traditional modes of distribution inconsistent at best ("I know that in Europe, it's pretty easy to get our records, but I'll be damned if I can find them here when I look," Jones says), much of Berserker's current promotion is focused on its Web site, berserkerrecords.com. There, Jones -- a freelance Web designer when he's not hyping sludgy rock bands -- keeps fans updated on new releases, posts live shows and maintains an online catalogue. The information is presented in a kind of conversational, between-us-fans tone that's born of a genuine passion for, and understanding of, the music at hand -- qualities all too rare in the world of mega-major labels. And while Jones understands that catering to a target audience may never lead to a wide profit margin, there's satisfaction in filling a void for fans like himself and putting out quality music. Still, he says, the label game is harder than it looks.
"When I first started hanging out with the Game 2 people, I would sort of laugh at how hard they worked," he says. "But now that's me."
If Jones's label is a labor of love on the part of a music fan, Outmode Records, a Boulder-based affair run by Cabaret Diosa's Darrin Feder and United Dope Front's William Yale, is the result of what sometimes happens when creative musicians need a vehicle for their strange and hard-to-quantify music. Ostensibly launched last February when Feder and a group of Diosa musicians were asked to produce the soundtrack for Traveler's Gin, an independent film directed by Erich Toll, Outmode officially came to life with the release The Man From Yesterday Has Just Arrived Today, Yale's solo effort. This spring, Outmode plans to record and release a full-length CD from Boulder vaudevillian surf-rock combo the Beloved Invaders. According to Yale, the artists affiliated with Outmode are united by a shared appreciation for sounds and methodology of a different era -- one in which a crackling amp was preferable to the precision of digital recording, and a basement studio or garage were the best environments for noisemaking.
"First and foremost, the purpose of the label is just to propagate '60s-inspired music, which sounds kind of idealistic," Yale says. "It's more about the state of mind -- getting back to guitars, organs. There's been this whole school of low-fi recording over the years, and I think what we're doing is related to that kind of philosophy."
"I still like to hear raw guitars, reverb, a natural drum sound here and there, drums that aren't totally blowing your ears out," adds Feder.
Yale and Feder's association as friends and musicians reaches back to their high school days in New Jersey, where they played and recorded in basements and fostered an appreciation of vintage and garage sounds. ("One of the best recordings we ever made," Feder says, "was in the basement -- a surf song we recorded with two Radio Shack microphones and an old tape deck from 1982.") Today, Outmode's recordings are produced in the pair's home-based Studio Roble -- which is stocked with Yale's self-described "old crap," including a 25-year-old mixing board, a twenty-year-old eight-track, and microphones some people would put into the questionable category.
At the time of their release, Outmode's two recordings were available through local stores and Cabaret and United Dope Front shows; the initial pressings quickly sold out. (The pair plans to make more soon, saying that right now, "they're so hip you can't even get them.") Currently, Feder and Yale eschew conventional distribution channels in lieu of Web sites and record stores that specialize in vintage, exotica and kooky sounds (à la Hepcat Records and Dusty Grooves). For now, however, they're more excited about expanding their roster -- slowly -- to accommodate a greater number of the sometimes far-reaching projects begun by local artists who understand the Outmode aesthetic.
"Outmode began as a way for us to record our own little side project," Feder says. "There aren't too many people around town who have the same obsession with these kinds of sounds. But we know a lot of musician friends who have different side-project ideas. There's a pretty big range of things we can do -- like, we could do a country-rock project inspired by the Byrds and Gram Parsons, or some Latin '60s kind of thing. There's a lot of styles that could be executed with the Outmode philosophy. The minimalism of the approach is more important than any one style."
Our mothers always told us to avoid labels. But these three, eclectic and inspired as they are, might be worth embracing.
Because there's really no better place to address a true social ill than in a sweaty mosh pit, Thornton's Slam Productions is presenting Slamfest Against Suicide on Saturday, February 3, at the Buffalo Rose. The show (for the eighteen-and-over crowd) is sponsored by the Yellow Ribbon Suicide Prevention Program and will raise money and awareness about teen suicide. Performers include Rocket Ajax, Sinkwhole, No Particular Order, Atomic Tide and Abused Minds, with guitar soloist Don Cruickshank. Even though jock Willie B hosts the event, you're advised to stick to plain ol' well-paved public roads on your way to the performance.
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