Dan Rutherford looks like the cat who just ate the canary, like he knows something no one else does. He's had this look for a few months, ever since he returned from South by Southwest at the end of March.
Now it's a blistering hot afternoon in early June. Rutherford and Adam Lancaster, who together own Morning After Records, and the imprint's primary sound engineer, Andrew Vastola, are gathered around a table on a rooftop patio overlooking downtown Denver. Clad in a hot-pink polo shirt, with pillow-combed curls framing his face, Rutherford leans back in his chair, lights up one of his trademark clove cigarettes and starts explaining what his smug grin is all about.
"Basically, what's happening with the Photo Atlas record, No, Not Me, Never, is that Morning After and Stolen Transmission -- which is a joint venture of Island run by Rob Stevenson, who signed the Killers, Fall Out Boy, Sum 41 -- are entering into a partnership to re-release the record, which should be out later this summer," he reveals. "It's a great opportunity, not only for Morning After, but for Photo Atlas, with better distribution channels and more marketing money. That's the one negative of Morning After, that we have a limited budget; we can only do so much."
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Still, it's done plenty in less than two years. Led by the savvy, ambitious Rutherford and bolstered by a trio of talented acts -- Photo Atlas, Hot IQs and Born in the Flood -- on its roster, Morning After provides a textbook example of how a small, independent label can gain national notoriety on a shoestring budget. Granted, Rutherford has benefited from some fortuitous opportunities -- early on, Hot IQs landed slots on tours supporting such emerging indie acts as Tilly and the Wall, and Tegan and Sara -- but he's also conducted a pair of successful retail and college-radio campaigns that culminated with Hot IQs' debut, An Argument Between the Brain and Feet, registering at #73 on CMJ's Top 200 chart, and Photo Atlas's No, Not Me, Never peaking at #36.
And at the same time he's worked to build his brand, he's helped raise the profile of Denver music. Along with hi-dive owner Matt LaBarge and the club's booking agent, Ben DeSoto, Rutherford put together back-to-back Denver-centric parties at SXSW in 2005 and 2006. He also arranged for his bands to appear at some pretty high-profile industry parties at this year's festival, and one of those slots paid off in a major way. Sharing the bill with Head Automatica and Nightmare of You, Photo Atlas turned in a breakthrough performance that became the talk of Austin. In addition to being namedropped as "buzzin'" by the Hits Daily Double website, an MSN Music correspondent included the outfit in his Best of SXSW blog.
"The closing band of the night was the Photo Atlas -- they're officially my new favorite band," wrote Gurj Bassi. "HOLY. SMOKES. I like to think it has nothing to do with the free booze. This band is flipping fantastic. They're so good it makes me want to spit profanities non-stop as if I have Tourette's."
Bassi's hyperventilation was warranted. From the moment Photo Atlas hit the first chord until it played the last note and left the stage completely drenched with beer, waves of frenetic energy rolled through the crowd, as though a toaster oven had landed in a packed wading pool.
"South by Southwest paid off," muses Rutherford with a laugh. "We busted our asses. That night, as soon as Photo Atlas finished playing, business cards were just being thrown at us. One of the people tied with Stolen Transmission tracked us down the next day at Gallery Lombardi. We handed her a record, which she handed off to Rob Stevenson. She called me the following Tuesday and was like, 'I can't believe how good this record is.'"
Soon after listening to No, Not Me, Never, Stevenson -- the executive vice president of A&R for Island Def Jam, who formed Stolen Transmission with former Spin scribe and assistant editor Sarah Lewitinn, aka Ultragrrrl -- reached out to Rutherford. "Really, the way the record sounds is a big, big part of it," Rutherford explains. "The fact that we didn't have to go back and rework anything, I think that's what made Rob so stoked about it. As he and I started talking -- he comes from a longstanding indie-label background -- he was like, ŒI understand that you're an indie label; I'll back off if you want.'
"But we're here to help our friends," Rutherford continues. "Our ultimate goal is for them to be able to quit their jobs and do what they want to do. And what they want to do is be musicians; they want to tour and live that life. How could we pass that up?"
Morning After didn't. After being flown to New York, where he met Jay-Z and L.A. Reid (who reportedly said, "I don't know what the kid is saying, but the beat is hot," of the Photo Atlas disc), Rutherford spent the past month finalizing the terms of the agreement, which will infuse his label with money for marketing and put the promotional muscle of Island Def Jam behind No, Not Me, Never. Depending on how the record does, the parent company has the option of upstreaming Photo Atlas. And the other members of Morning After's roster will benefit, too: As part of the deal, all of the label's future releases will be distributed nationally through Fontana, Universal Records' indie branch.
"To be able to get into a system that's that big and that well-refined opens up a lot of opportunities," Rutherford notes. "And the fact that we're lucky enough to work with someone like Rob Stevenson, who's got the Killers and Fall Out Boy -- he's got a great track record, and he's been around for so long. He can make things happen."
Adds Lancaster, "I think the big thing is that the help we're getting with the Island partnership is going to translate into record sales. And the more record sales we have will give us more resources to do bigger things with the other bands."
"And the team that Stolen Transmission has assembled is really, really good," Rutherford points out. "You have people like Eric Speck, who ran Ace Fu. He and I have really bonded in some ways. He's like, 'I see exactly what you're doing. I know the path.' And Sarah Lewitinn, she's all over the place, which is great for the band, because the most important thing is to have all these great people on the street talking them up."
It wasn't all that long ago that Rutherford was the only one talking up his concept for a new label -- on this very patio ("The Beatdown," September 30, 2004). The then-23-year-old son of a man who'd worked his way up from bag boy to senior veep at Safeway, Rutherford had a few good ideas and was fluent with industry jargon, name-checking as inspiration both Omaha's Saddle Creek and Suburban Home Records, an imprint owned and operated by Virgil Dickerson. At the time, Rutherford was a flack for Indiego promotions, an internship-turned-full-time-job that he'd gotten after a stint as an A&R scout for Warner Bros. His ambitions were unmistakable, and it seemed only a matter of time before he made his mark.
Lancaster got the same sense when he met Rutherford a few years ago at a show. Disappointed by Denver's poor showing at SXSW in 2003, Rutherford was already thinking of creating a label, but was also fielding job offers on the West Coast. Lancaster, who was fronting the band Curious Yellow at the time, talked him into staying in Denver and starting a label. "I was like, 'If you go out there and work for a major label, you're still going to be pissed off, because you can't do it your way, you have to do it the way they tell you,'" Lancaster recalls. "And he was like, 'Yep. You're right.' So he took his ideas and started running."
Morning After may have issued just two records during that run, but they're choice. "I think the records, from start to finish, are just really solid from a production angle," Rutherford asserts. "That's the one thing that turned so many heads right when it first started. It's Andrew. I'll keep touting him until the end."
Vastola, who graduated from the University of Colorado at Denver's recording program, was brought in to help mix Hot IQs' Argument, which was tracked at bassist Bryan Feuchtinger's Uneven Studios. After that, he handled mixing duties and did some re-tracking on No, Not Me, Never, which was also recorded at Uneven. Although the former Grace Like Gravity drummer grew up around his father's studio, Rocky Mountain Recorders, he never intended to make a living in the studio himself.
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"I was always there, crawling around in the ceiling when I was eight years old," Vastola recalls, "running cables and stuff like that. But it was never like, 'Yeah, this is what I'm going to do when I grow up.'" Nonetheless, he's now Morning After's de facto producer and sound engineer, and he's also behind the boards at Rocky Mountain Recorders, where he's begun pre-production on Born in the Flood's next full-length.
Meanwhile, Hot IQs have fulfilled the terms of their one-album deal and are overseeing the sessions for their next record themselves. There's a good possibility they'll be leaving Morning After -- perhaps for SpinArt, which has helped with the act's digital distribution. Rutherford has mixed emotions about the potential move, and vows he won't be signing another one-off deal anytime soon. "We put in a lot of money that there's a potential of never seeing again," he says. "And if that never comes back because we only have this one record, then we're still sitting there with a big stack of bills, and someone else is getting the rewards of all our hundreds of hours of hard work and money."
Still, he doesn't begrudge Hot IQs their success. "That's been the plan from the beginning, to lay the foundation for our friends and hopefully get them to the next level," he concludes. "We're sticking to our formula of working with our friends and putting out really solid records. And things are definitely happening, but it's all because we've been working our asses off. That's what it comes down to. And we're going to keep going."