Denver-based Sailor Records, which is celebrating its first five years this weekend, started as both a labor of love and a tax write-off. When founder Oscar Ross put out the first album by his hard-rock band Lords of Fuzz in 2010, he did it just to have an imprint on the sleeve of the twelve-inch record. He named the label for his son, whom he named after Nicolas Cage’s character in Wild at Heart (Ross’s favorite movie), and the initial intentions for Sailor Records were just as personal and humble as those of any band self-releasing its music.
At the time, Ross had played out extensively in Denver with the Fuzz, a band he formed around 2004, during his divorce.
“The band was like therapy,” Ross recalls. “It made me so happy, and I fed off of writing music with other people. We were literally a garage band. We weren’t very good, and we all knew it. We went through a lot of lineup changes, and then I met Leeroy Steele. The Lords of Fuzz is what kept me sane. We do it for ourselves. We know who we are on the food chain. We’re not out to conquer the world, but we still try to write really good music.”
The band consists of Ross and Steele, who both play guitar, as well as drummer Ryan “Hammercock” DeWitt and bassist Paul Montero. Interestingly, that lineup also includes two doctors: Montero is a general surgeon who juggles the band with fatherhood and a heavy workload; and Ross is a radiologist who attended medical school in Austin in the late ’80s and early ’90s — the formative heyday of the South by Southwest music festival.
After medical school, Ross realized that specializing in surgery left no time for outside interests, so he switched to radiology. After spending time in Arizona and California, he moved to Denver in 2002 to work at St. Anthony Hospital.
“I always liked Colorado; we came here when I was growing up,” Ross says about the decision to move. “I was married at the time. I put a map on the table, and my wife circled a couple of places. I wanted to go back to Austin, but she didn’t want to live in Texas.”
During his first few years in Colorado, Ross lived in downtown Denver, where he discovered the legendary 15th Street Tavern and popular Capitol Hill dive bar Cricket on the Hill. Ross became acquainted with various Denver bands of the time — including Planes Mistaken for Stars and experimental metal band Fucking Orange — at both venues, and when Lords of Fuzz got off the ground, the group played there, too.
When the Fuzz was ready to make its first real recording, Ross booked time at Uneven Studio, run by Bryan Feuchtinger. The process of recording fascinated Ross, and he consulted with Feuchtinger and Pete de Boer of World Famous Studios when it came time to build his own basement studio. At no small expense, Ross established Sailor Records Studio as a companion to Sailor Records LLC. Doing so allowed him to offer bands a space where they could bring in an engineer and record.
“That was more like me helping out friends, initially,” Ross explains. “I loved being in the studio. Friends would come over to track a demo, and that was a great time. Then I signed Muscle Beach.”
Sailor Records had already put out albums by Lords of Fuzz, Amputators, Red Devil Magic, Cult of the Lost Cause and Low Gravity, but Muscle Beach’s 2014 debut was the project that marked the first big push from the imprint. Soon, Ross was poised to put out or reissue records by Native Daughters and Dreadnought, bands of which he was very much a fan. By then, the label had started putting an emphasis on heavier music.
“At that point, I realized I had to redesign the website,” recalls Ross. “The whole time, I’m learning the process of running a record label. I had to figure out how to make it work financially, because you can just bleed money doing a record label. Once I got to that level, I was able to put together packages for bands where I could help with recording and get vinyl — because everyone wants vinyl. And I’m not making any money, but if I can break even, I could do it forever.”
Five years in, Sailor Records and Americana sister label Roll the Jax are focused on bands that Ross feels can push their music to the next level. He recently signed Austin-based heavy psych band Greenbeard for the release of its 2015 album Stoned at the Throne. And one of the more adventurous signings of late is that of Denver’s Echo Beds, whose New Icons of a Vile Faith is set for a joint release with Sole’s Black Box Tapes.
“That’s the perfect example of something that’s a little bit outside the heavier rock-and-roll sound,” Ross says. “Something about that album just spoke to me.”
It’s no small task for someone with a high-level professional job to also start his own business in a completely different industry, but Ross says he is consistently inspired by Denver’s music and the quality of the community surrounding it. Perhaps just as important, he harbors no illusions about competing with more established imprints.
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“If Muscle Beach came to me and said Relapse wanted to sign them, I’d tell them they definitely need to do that,” says Ross. “If I’m a stepping stone to that level? That’s awesome. Whatever record I did with them will still be Sailor Records, but being able to help them get to that level makes me really happy.”
Thus far, Sailor Records is a more or less a solo effort, though Ross gets help from the bands on the roster with certain things, such as artwork. He also seems to be keenly aware of the challenges of his side business and the completely unromantic side of running a small label. He admits that he’s made mistakes along the way.
“I do this all myself, and I’ve definitely dropped the ball,” he concedes. “We’ve had some issues with vinyl pressing. We’re getting some digital sales, but it’s hard to get national and international distribution, even with the vinyl. [Some distributors] tell me they love our catalogue but we’re too small. I know that when money is involved, it changes the conversation a little bit, so I try to keep it very simple and up front. These aren’t contracts; these are handshakes. There’s trust involved, and mutual help. I think at some point it would be nice to get someone to help, but I kind of like doing it myself.”
Sailor Records Fifth-Anniversary Party
Sugar Skulls and Marigolds, Greenbeard, Echo Beds and more, 4 p.m., Saturday, July 2, 3 Kings Tavern, 60 South Broadway, 303-777-7352, $10, 21+.