Thursday, August 4, 2016

Sympathy for the Record Industry (revisit)

November 22, 2013

(F/L) My first exposure to Sympathy for the Record Industry was in 1989 when I began reading zines like Flipside and Maximum Rock n Roll. Right away, I would notice the SFTRI ads and thought “that’s a strange name for a record label”, how did underground music speak to you and inspire the record label and corresponding name?

(Long Gone John) The name for the label came to me as I was driving down the 710 heading for L.A. to master the first record. I’m a Rolling Stones fan and it just sorta came to me as if ordained by God or perhaps it was Mr. D. I thought it was a fitting name and apropos as the record industry was an easy shoe-in for the Devil. My distributor and many others thought it should be, no sympathy, but to me it was tongue in cheek as if I could really give a shit either way. The name has served me well.

I soon got turned on to the Dwarves “I Wanna Kill Your Boyfriend” 7 inch followed by Hole’s “Retard Girl”, in my perspective, these singles began to define a new era of music in the1990s, a renaissance of sorts. How did this resurgence affect you and what aspects did you like and dislike in the decade?

Hole almost more than anyone was a big deal for me. I’d been seeing them a lot and to me it was pretty evident that with a force like Courtney at the helm, the potential was certainly there to be a solid contender for stardom. Although I fully understand, it is near sacrilege and I risk being stoned to death in the town square, I still like her. I think she’s talented, she writes some great songs and is a real rock chick and there are nearly no rock chicks around.

The Dwarves were already a well-known entity and had records out…people really liked them they were sorta the poster children for the punk movement: short fast songs, set over in 15 minutes spiced with equal amounts of abandon and legendary nudity. Blag is an incredible songwriter and he has always surrounded himself with incredible musicians. I think Blag is a little more intelligent than most and he knows how the game works and takes care of business. He is serious about his career.

What I love about SFTRI to this day is the folklore and mystique that surrounds it. Who is Long Gone John?

Well, that is a name I came up with one night when i was going to the liquor store between bands, by the Cathay de Grande. I was with my best friend. We had been in a boys home together when we were 16-17 in Echo Park. We were in the liquor store and all of a sudden he was laughing really loud I went over and he showed me some porn magazine with an article about John Holmes titled Long Dong John. The name kinda stuck in my mind and sometime that night I came up with Long Gone John. I was unaware at the time there were a couple songs that used that name, one by Tom Waits, an old field holler and a pretty great one by Louis Armstrong called Long John From Bowling Green. Anyway I was actually studying to become al tattooist at the time and thought it would be a great name for me, so the name precedes the label by 5 years or so. Nowadays I actually prefer to go by two-bit Johnny cuz after the “Treasures of Long Gone John” film came out I kinda felt that chapter of my life was over. I always attempted to make Sympathy appear as a much bigger entity than it was and because I kept a high profile with advertising and such, people were surprised to discover it was a label run entirely by one guy out of his house. I’d get calls with someone saying, “Can I speak to someone in college promotions?” or “Can I speak to someone who handles foreign press?”, I always thought it was funny.

There were stories (some of which I created) that I was a trust fund brat, that I owned slaughterhouses and that I was heavily involved in the pornography industry. Stuff like that kept people guessing and probably made me appear more interesting. The truth was I got up, worked on Sympathy all day, and if I wasn’t off to see a band at night I just watched TV. I really had a pretty insular existence. There was a rumor going around Long Beach that I had Tourette’s Syndrome cuz I cussed so much. The reality is I was just a hard worker obsessed with records, trying to make things look good and releasing records at an astounding rate. At 10 years in business, I had a catalog that equaled a release per week for every week of existence. I did eventually slow down a bit. I just didn’t know what else to do, I didn’t know how to stop. I had so many friends in bands and bands would break up and splint off into new bands and I’d get so many recommendations from people whose opinions I respected. I never went out looking for bands and rarely choose things from submissions except for foreign bands.

What was your opinion then and now about artists venturing from independent label notoriety to a major label, in search of a larger audience and paying the bills with art (if possible at all)?

It’s an inevitable and necessary step for an artist. I don’t begrudge anyone wanting to better themselves. It’s the reason I’ve never signed contracts and I never once asked a band for any portion of their publishing. Most artists were aware they would not get rich with Sympathy and I believe most thought of it as a springboard to something else. I was fine with that, but the lack of finesse and consideration with which it was done by certain parties was a very different thing. I think someone like me who put a great deal of faith and time and money into a band deserved something if they went to greener pastures, just seems like courtesy and honor to me. It’s a tough game for the label and artist, it’ll be tough wherever they go. The sad reality is that the chances of a band making it in a big way are pretty infinitesimal at best and if they make a bit of a splash it is usually pretty short lived. I released records with over 550 bands and I think most of them do it for fun and have realistic expectations. I think they are fortunate to get a label to foot the bill to put out a record, make it look good and get it out with proper distribution. The retail market has to know about the band, find the record in a shop and then plop down their dough. It’s practically magic if those 3 things happen in succession. There is so much product out there. A glut of horrible stuff by horrible bands. It’s difficult to wade through the shit to find the good stuff.

If you had to trade places with an artist/musician from any era, who would it be and why?

I’m gonna say Hank Williams. Of course his life wasn’t glamorous and it was very short, but he was so prolific. He must’ve written every day and found inspiration in the simplest things. His music is pure and uncluttered, he was an early American treasure, and it seems his music was very much aimed at the downtrodden and working man sensibilities. He wrote songs of sadness and heartbreak and of love and tearing things up. I have a great admiration for him for that reason.

As “part of the problem since 1988”, you helped introduce the world to Billy Childish whose work ethic seemed eerily similar to SFTRI. What similarities do you see between yourself and Mr. Childish, if any?

Well, actually there are similarities, I think our work ethic was the same and the result is: he put out a shit load of records and I put out a shit load of records. Billy is a real renaissance man. He is a prolific performer, he is an accomplished poet and he is an artist garnering greater accolades and success as the years roll by. Billy was always gracious and thankful.

The label reissued some legendary works by the Scientists, Gun Club, and Roky Erickson to name a few. Why do you think music listeners do not catch the greatness of these artists the first time around or is that the classic conundrum most artists face?

I think with time the important/visionary musicians will be recognized and receive the status they deserve. Truth is there are very few that really rate any longevity in the history books. The Scientists, Roky and Gun Club rate pretty damn high. I’m also very proud of the Wanda Jackson, Wreckless Eric, New York Dolls and the Suicide releases I was able to do.

Throughout the decade of the 2000s, what changes were you starting to notice in modern music at the time (good and bad)?

I’m kinda oblivious to time frame. It’s hard to make a definitive distinction between the 1990’s and 2000’s. It’s all a blur. I do feel the quality of the bands I was able to work with did continue to get better as the years rolled by and the last records I released before I moved from Long Beach are some of my favorites, like Matson Jones, the Ettes and projects with Jack Oblivion and Greg Cartwright. There isn’t much going on right now that I care about, I’d rather listen to old music than follow new bands that are merely aping the cool old stuff at best.

You have a sincere passion for Long Beach, as the city was heavily associated with the label and amazing bands such as The Red Aunts and the Humpers. Why is your affection for Long Beach so strong and what do you consider the“heart of the city” to be?

I do love Long Beach. I lived there for 25 years or so. It’s a great city. I love that it’s by the ocean and it still feels like a little town. For a while it had a couple of the best venues and that was Fenders and Bogarts so it was nice to not always have to drive to L.A. to see bands. Now, there is Alex’s and they seem to get very cool acts. I only left cuz I was tired with Southern California in general. I was born there and lived there my entire life. I needed a change and wanted to be somewhere that it rained a lot. I wanted to live in a forest on the water and I was fortunate to be able to find that. Olympia is a quiet little town and I am 7 miles from there. I’m really happy here and appreciate the beauty and solitude every day.

After years of varying accounts of your artistic dealings, what are your favorite misconceptions and rumors about Sympathy?

Well, it’s interesting that I worked with over 550 bands and only had one legal entanglement. There are those who were unhappy, but very few in light of the total. I made mistakes. I did not however promise things I would not deliver. It’s always the ones who sold the most poorly who are certain they’ve been cheated. I had an ongoing mantra; “anyone who can handle the humiliation is welcome to go through my files at any time”. The only reason I was able to sustain Sympathy for so many years is that I had so many releases and each month I’d sell a few of these and a few of those and it would add up to something. The ones that actually generated anything beyond the expense of the original budgets were few and far between. I spent most of the money on new projects. The recent ones subsidized the upcoming ones, it’s just the way I did it. I wasn’t Capital Records, I was an uneducated record collector that accidentally started a record label. I never had an office or an employee. In retrospect I think I did a pretty good job. I did not leave any bodies in my wake and I put out a lot of very cool music that likely wouldn’t exist if Sympathy operated on any other level. I think the important thing is that the bands have left behind a legacy and there are documents that they existed. So many performers never get that and are relegated to remain in the ether.

As founder and sole owner of Sympathy for the Record Industry, indisputably one of the most influential independent labels over the past 20 years, what made you decide to stop doing the label?

Well, Sympathy still exists although I’ve only done a few things since I’ve been in Olympia. I released the Waldos album as an LP, as I’d only done a CD originally. I released the Ettes last album on LP as well as putting out 3 singles with them with 3 different covers and 3 different B sides. Anyone who has run a label knows that’s a suicide mission, no way to break even on a project like that. I did it because I love the band and wanted to do something special for them. If the right project crosses my path I’d consider it, but I’m not interested anymore in spending money on losing propositions. I put my time into trying to document the music I thought was cool. It was never about making money to me. It was keeping me busy, out of trouble and cultivating friends I would cherish the remainder of my life. I have been fortunate to work with some amazingly talented people. I am grateful to every one of them for sharing their creative force with me.

What consumes your creative appetite nowadays?

I share my home with four cats, I stare out my windows, I walk on the beach and in the forest. I go to swap meets, yard sales, antique shows when they happen. I continue to fill my life with peripheral things; toys, books, art and records. I don’t think too much about tomorrow. I sleep when I’m able and watch lots of films and TV. I’ve just published a beautiful new book, called, “The Timid Cabbage” written by Charles Kraftt and illustrated by Femke Hiemstra and I still produce projects with my other venture, Necessaries Toy Foundation. The days disappear, I never run out of things to do.