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Philadelphia Freakdom: An interview with Tom Lax of Siltbreeze
When a label starts its life by birthing a Halo of Flies 7", one has
to pay attention. When that Halo of Flies 7" spawns releases by Dead C,
the Gibson Bros., Jim Shephard (with Vertical Slit, V-3 and solo),
Mike Rep & the Quotas, as well as under-appreciated, obscure
bands like The Yips and The Resineaters, you put that label on your
Trademark of Quality list. The label in question is Siltbreeze.
Siltbreeze was started in 1989 by Tom Lax, a Central Ohio native,
transplanted in Philadelphia. Tom ran Siltbreeze for 11 years, took two
years off, released one CD and went back into hibernation for a couple
more. Last year, Tom released the New Times Viking's debut, Dig
Yourself, a record well received by nearly everyone at TB except
perhaps one or two dullards. The label is considered one of the best of
the 1990s and ranks as one of my favorites of all time.
TERMINAL BOREDOM: Might
as well start off at the beginning, the beginning of American punk
rock, that is. My fantasy Ss Records project is a Fugs box set. Ideally
it would be all the recorded stuff, live stuff, some Tuli solo ('No
Deposit...') and lots of writing by Ed and Tuli. I could never pull it
off. The stuff has been reissued and/or so many entities have the
rights. So it's a fantasy. First off, do you have any Siltbreeze fantasy
projects? Second, would you agree that the Fugs are the first great
American punk band? Third, tell me how great the Fugs are and why?
TB: Aha! "Provocateurs, city
radicals, literate, thinking, rapier-sharp people" - words like that
will get you crucified by today's "punk rocker."
TB: For me one of the attractions of punk was that it was full of "provocateurs, city
radicals, literate, thinking, rapier-sharp people." I think those
people are still there but what's "punk" is saddled with a hefty load
of orthodoxy - whether it be from hardcore, garage, PC punks, anti-PC
punks. Do you think there is still room for intellectually challenging
and creatively expansive people/projects within punk? Or has the
term lost its meaning/zing and it is silly to be concerned with punk as
some kind of expression?
TB: I am guessing I came into
rock & roll about the same time you did, when, as you write
anything from Black Flag to the Birthday Party was considered punk. I
do not take for granted finding out about all this music when there
were no genre ghettos, just MOR rock, what-was-to-be-classic rock, and
punk rock. I am sure you saw the walls come up in the late 80s and then
cemented in the 90s. Sometimes I wonder if people, locked up in their
genre prisons, missed out on lots of good stuff...and then I remember
that they put themselves in their cells. Still, it is invigorating to
hear bands like Pink Reason or the Frenchies that I pimp, bands that
are hard to categorize, and that either ignore the tags or proclaim "we
are punk" and let others fight it out whether they are or aren't or
should be wearing yellow shoelaces in their sneakers. Perhaps
surrealism is asserting itself in rock & roll. Or has it always
been there? Today I listened to Jim Shepard's "Bingle Bangle" (off of the
record you put out, Picking Through the Wreckage with a Stick), the
Bonzo Dog Band, and 'Wombling Songs' by the Wombles - all of it surreal,
though not always intentional. If there is a question in there I guess
it has to do with surrealism and rock & roll - riff off that if you
TB: It seems like there has
always been this under the underground where music labels don't fit
well or even apply. I think of the Fugs, Beefheart, Can to Throbbing
Gristle, Electric Eels to Vertical Slit, Liimanarina and I have a hard
time cramming them into any box.
TB: Currently there are all
kinds of bands that seem to defy being pegged. One of my favorite
labels right now is Not Not Fun out of LA, which is documenting the
most creative and interesting thing
happening in that area since the New Alliance/Happy Squid
days and the LAFMS before that. The magic of it is that I don't think
these kids are even aware of the lineage.
TB: Uh...I forget this
thing they call the internet and how easy it is to track down obscure
stuff nowadays...I remember people fretting over the Punk Boom of the
1990s and how commercialization was going to destroy the
underground. Instead, it grew and became even less commercially
accessible. Your thoughts?
TB: I think labels can
also defy description. Siltbreeze is one of those. I think in the Scott
Soriano/Pink Reason "punk is what I say it is" point of view,
Siltbreeze is a "punk" label, but not by numbers and not obviously so.
I see a thread in all the records. I am sure you do otherwise you
wouldn't have put them out. Can you go through what you think about
when putting out records? How do you decide what to put out? Is there
something that you see that links the Gibson Bros., Vertical Slit, and
the Yips, other than your taste, and, perhaps geography?
TB: It seems that geography plays apart in what you put
out. Is there a conscious attempt to document underground Ohio or did
that just happen because that is where you lived and what you know?
TB: I have a thing for
regional labels, so much so that the first one I did was dedicated only
to Sacramento bands. What do you think of regional labels? Are they
important to you and if so, why? And can you tell me about your
favorite regional labels?
TB: I think most folks
thought Siltbreeze was dead and then this New Times Viking record comes
along and talk about coming back with a bang! What lead to the label's
dormancy? Lack of interest in the music going on at the time? Burnout
over dealing with people and/or the business end? Having boxes and
boxes of records and no place to store them? I ended my first label
because it just seemed to run it's course. And why did you start
the thing back up? Was it just TNV or were you jonesing to do it again?
TL: My experience in local terms has been that people think I'm wasting my money! I used to go out a lot more, see tons of people and, you know, you get the local indie rockers who are all "Why are you putting out shit like Shadow Ring? Put our record out!" They'd be in a band called Mel's Rockpile, so it was a stacked deck. You know what I mean? In their minds it's like "You're a record label. We're a band. What the fuck"?
I work in a used record store and it's the same mentality. People bring in a box of LPs out of a basement, reeking of mildew and covered in mold. When you tell them "No." they're incredulous. "It says you buy records"....I hear that all the time. So you have to spell it out; "Yes, it says we buy records. It does not say we buy ALL records. We buy records we can resell. This is a business, not a graveyard where old records go to rot." The misguided hometown band....same shit, different day.
Or people would say "How do you manage, do your records even sell"? Up to a point - and maybe to this day - there were/are local aging hipsters who probably think "That poor misguided fool". If I had a dollar for every time I've tried to describe the machinations of what I do, I'd probably have more money from that than any I made from putting out records.
I think putting out records is still an exciting process. I've had a couple of disappointments band-wise and sales-wise. The second releases by Yips and Ashtabula tanked. They might have done something if the bands had been active; but they had either broken up or were on some personal hiatus. They're both good CDs, but needed that live injection to show, convince or generate an audience and it never happened.
I'd expected the Resineaters and 1929 CDs to do better than they did, so whose being naive here? The Times New Viking release has been a blast. Like I said earlier, going in I wasn't sure what I was in for. Was I working with people who couldn't leave town? Was somebody having a baby? Drugs? At the worst I figured I had a killer LP that would sell 500 copies. But, once I got to know them, all the aspersions were cast away.
That said, for me it's been about the music first. I knew a few of the bands before doing releases, but most, I did not. It's equal levels of trust. It has to be. Your getting master tapes and artwork from New Zealand from someone you've never met, never even talked to on the phone. That says a lot! It was the same with Harry Pussy, Charalambides, Shadow Ring, Sunshine Superscum, A Band - most of the bands I worked with. I didn't know them. Some I still have never met. I just loved what they sent and we worked out terms, usually in product. Some of them wanted to do their own covers. As there is no place that'll print less than 1000 jackets, it became a DIY affair - which is also the way some of the future releases are being handled. I'm going to try and emphasize vinyl. Hopefully it's not too late.
As for what goes through my mind when putting together a record it's usually "I hope they're ready for this!" I dunno, the playing field has not only been leveled, it's below sea level. I doubt that I'll encounter the same sort of dismay now as I did releasing Harry Pussy, Dead C and Shadow Ring. But that's okay. It's not about the shock value. Until it is. TB: Oh I know EXACTLY what you are talking about with the box of old moldy records. Try working in a bookstore after Antiques Road Show does an episode on old books! One TV show and all these assholes are more of an expert than me who has done this for 10+ years 365 days a year...And it is the same with bands, too. I've disappointed many friends by not asking them to do a record with me. Nowadays they don't ask. And I now have a policy that I do not put out records by friends. I will become friends with the people I have put out records but there is so much of a chance to fuck up perfectly good friendships over asking a sleeve be redone because it is too grainy or that something needs to be resequeneced because you just don't start a balls to the wall punk album with a ballad. It is so much easier to put out a record than it is to make good friends. With all this and everything else that I've asked you in mind, are there any things you would have done different regarding Siltbreeze or is it a live, learn, move on type of thing?
TL: Not really. Obviously I wish some of the bands/releases had been more successful, but overall I'm pretty satisfied with the way things have gone. I caught shit from people - both bands and fans - regarding our Matador arrangement back in the mid/late 90's, but it was a very valuable learning experience. For some people it worked out; for others it didn't. It was a mess that's for sure, but I don't blame Matador. I honestly think they were trying to do a good thing, but since all the product had to go through WEA, we were in way over our head.
It was pretty much the reason Dead C and I severed ties. And that's okay, I wasn't and am not grudgeful because of it. In fact, had they given me the s/t double CD that followed their last Siltbreeze release ('Tusk') and expected me to release it, things might have gotten ugly. So if you look at it from that perspective, the M&D (manufacturing and distribution) deal was a good thing, especially for diehard fans of that lugubrious and turgid Dead C double CD. And to think it might never have happened without the Matador deal. To them I say, you are welcome! TB: You mentioned Siltbreeze's relationship with Matador, which has major label ties. As you noted, it was a controversial decision and I have been told (by others) that it wasn't the happiest pairing. I am not asking you to talk shit about Matador. But I am interested in how that relationship worked, what were the advantages and disadvantages, and what you learned from the experience.
TL: Did I make it seem controversial? Actually in some ways it seemed like a logical step. I think Matador were trying to get us to the "next" level, it's just that the level wasn't ready for what we had to offer. On the surface the relationship was simple: They would manufacture and distribute our product for a small percentage. As they were now part of the Atlantic Group, they had access to ADA, which is an exclusive distributor which gets it's shit everywhere. Great. Except Dead C and Harry Pussy weren't Pavement and Blues Explosion. The numbers pressed were much greater than those that sold - which was the problem.
Dealing with Matador was easy. Dealing with Atlantic was extremely difficult, virtually impossible and, in the end, that's who we were really working for. The accounting statements we would get were like trying to decipher the Rosetta Stone (that was purposely done). I hired an accountant and it was after the accountant went through it that you'd find out you were being charged for stuff spent by PCP, Teenbeat, Scat, etc. And it happened to all the labels who had the arrangement. Atlantic just seemed to consider us all as one entity. The only label to profit from the deal was Scat because of the Guided by Voices connection, though I'm sure Robert Griffin has some real horror stories he could tell from his Atlantic experience.
The upside of the thing was that Matador made it possible for us to bring the Dead C over to tour in '95; I was able to procure advances for stuff like paying for Harry Pussy and UN's van for that West Coast tour in '96; Charalambides plane tickets; get money to the Pin Group for that project, etc., You know, it made things easier, it's just that none of it added up to the numbers that a major label expects. When it ended it was gracious, no hard feelings, the stock was sent back. What did I learn? That my basement isn't nearly as big full as it is empty. TB: It is very apparent nowadays that majors seek to try to incorporate indies into their system, to use them as a farm league, where in the past they would just try to crush them. I think that the majors have largely been successful with this new strategy, so much so that labels are made with being a jumping off point to the majors in mind. Also, there have been brief periods of time (1967 - 1970, 1976 - 1983, 1988 - 1994) when indie labels were a little more than small (and often shadier versions of) majors. Now we seem to be at a point where many indies are little more than small businesses that put out music. Business plans and marketing are more important than the music and a whole industry (CMJ, Pitchfork, various radio station servicers, etc.) have popped up to provide an "indie" infrastructure for the "indie" label business. I think you've seen (and at times been a part of) the whole game. Now that you are back to what I would consider a "hobby" label (or microlabel or music fanatic label - I consider SS a hobby label, so there is no negativity implied with the word hobby), what are your thoughts on all this...
TL:I don't know if you ever did something like a NMS or CMJ panel, but those things were always sort of hilarious and self important to me. Granted, I did sit on a few, but it was more to go to NYC and hangout, see friends who'd come in from all over, than to pontificate about what needs to be done to take the alt/indie universe to the next century.
Back when I started, CMJ was always very supportive of Siltbreeze. I'm not sure how that translated to sales, but they wrote nice things. Some radio stations too were there from the beginning: WFMU, KFJC, KDVS, KUSF, we always seemed to do well with them. That was probably more important than any publicists or indie service bullshit. I mean, hardly anyone on the label ever toured! So it wasn't like you were gonna get to see them again if you missed them the one time they played in town. To me touring is the best publicity there is.
I found it depressing to try and send promos to zines by the mid 90's. There really weren't any. Sure, there were some, they came out maybe once a year and tried to review everything that was sent, which was legion. Is was always the same. Do I really care what Mr. X at Y Mag thinks? Is another interview with Gastr Del Sol gonna be as riveting as all the others that preceded it? Sorry, boring! I much prefer subjective criticism than objective ass kissing, but the latter is the rule and almost always has been. You get your promo box from so and so label, are you really gonna trash it, even if it sucks? No, because that box will stop coming. And so will the advertising.
Things seem exciting again though. There is a lot of crazy shit out there, some of it's good and some of it blows, but it's better than most of what came out in the late 90's. And vinyls hot again, which is always preferable to CDs. And downloading is whatever. (I think there's some Siltbreeze stuff available form Itunes now.) I see hipsters walking around with ipods and I imagine they're listening to the Pixies or Arcade Fire, but it could be Times New Viking or Dead C.
I'm happy as a "hobby" label. I just wanna see good stuff come out and if it sells 600, great, if it sells, 6000, ditto. With Times New Viking I sent out a bunch of radio promos, a few print ones - mostly online stuff - the response was great. I did send one to Pitchfork for review and after a while I e-mailed to ask if they got it. In response I got an e-mail asking me if I'd like to advertise. I didn't and it never got reviewed. So the more things change, the more they stay the same, don't you think? TB: HA! Same thing happened to me with Pitchfork and the A Frames. And I agree all that indie service industry bullshit is exactly that. It is where the money is at. Not doing a label but selling these "essential" services to idiots who want to make it big as an indie label and/or band.
I think the two most interesting people you've dealt with are Jim Shepard and Mike Rep. Shepard is a sound of his own and I don't think has any peer. Rep has got such a great ear and history and he has been around for so long and "keeps it real," as the youngsters would say. Can you tell me a bit about each and your relationship with them?
TL: Wow, it's too bad Jim's not around to hear that! I kind of know what you mean though. It's funny, in some ways they're very much alike - both of 'em big Kim Fowley fans - but when it comes to recording and sound, completely different. My relationship with each of them really started once I got the label up and running. I knew them both, slightly, from back in the early 80's, but we weren't friends or anything.
Jim I'd contacted first for the V-3 EP. While I was out in Columbus to wrap that up, I ran into Rep and pitched the LP idea to him. I think what I'd wanted was to do maybe a Quotas LP, basically put onto vinyl the cassettes that were on his Old Age/No Age label. But it went from that to a kind of odds and sods thing, which worked much better, I think. It's much more representative of what Mike's about. The front cover on that record...I'm not a fan of, but hey, it's what he wanted and I wasn't going to say no. It's still my least favorite cover art of all the releases on the label, but it's something we can joke about (the back art is.....how do I phrase this...genius!). There again, I think it's Mike's sense of humor at play. Mike is a huge part of the Siltbreeze picture, whether it is working with the Strapping Fieldhands, Yips or Times New Viking, or showing up on short notice to come and play gigs, or showing whomever a good time when they hit Columbus or Harrisburg (where he lives). He's got a great ear and a big heart. It's too bad he's not given the proper, accurate credentials regarding his work on the Propeller LP in the Guided by Voices book (it seems that Jim Greer needs the mascot entry into the Monument Club club, so facts be damned. Besides, there's always the Darby Tavern).
I think Jim's love of being on the outer periphery was what made him so great and was also his demise. It was always his way or the highway when working with a label, whether it was me, or Thrill Jockey or even Onion. I always gave him space and we worked as a client would work with a contractor; I'd give him x amount of money to get started, x amount when the product was ready to be handed in, and then copies when they were ready. That arrangement was unique to Jim, which was good 'cause I never really had a lot of money to front!
Jim was also the original DIY artist in Columbus. Three of the four Vertical Slit records he put out he did with his own money, selling his record or book collections to see them finished. So the small editions they were released in were equally about being obscure, but also what he could afford. And then there was Iron Press which he ran, publishing short fiction, poetry, cassettes, a Vertical Slit video, all totally under the radar for the most part. The Forced Exposure piece he and Mike did was really what got him in running as a known entity. It made his presence known to a few hundred that were unaware, I think that's safe to say. I certainly bookmarked it and when I found out about a V-3 cassette few years later, I wrote away for a copy and got one with a very nice letter regarding some memory I mentioned in mine. From there we agreed to do the V-3 7". It was always my lust to do the Lava Lamp cassette as a realized vinyl release, which was the carrot he dangled in front of my face until his death. But I'm gettin ahead.
'The Wreckage...' LP was something he really wanted to do, something dark and personal, and also, I think, as a sort of homage to Jandek and Charalambides, both of whom he found inspiring. There's a lot of inside jokes on there. For example, the first track - "Incident on Brown Street" - is about the apartment I lived in at the time and specifically a chair he always INSISTED on sleeping in, which had to do with the first time he ever visited. I can't recall exactly, but that chair was his!
When he did that LP for Onion, that was really the first money he'd ever received from being a recording artist, so I think that made him super hands on, or at least as much as he could be. I do remember stories of him driving the A&R guy as well as the engineer crazy with his ideas and demands on final cut. But that's only fair. That LP didn't do much sales-wise. I think he was disappointed but unbowed. Or so I'd like to believe.
He had great range when it came to music and knew a lot about all kinds of esoteric and weird stuff, which was also why we worked okay together. He was an amazing guitarist, too, and a band leader. I saw V-3 shows where he literally ran through the set list with the band - which was usually in flux - on the side of the stage before going on, quietly pointing out on his fretboard what would happen, then watching them go out and kill! Amazing, Nobody like him.
Right before he died he sent me the master for the 'Slit and Pre-Slit' LP, which was the first thing he ever did in 1977, in an edition of 100 LPs. The last time we had talked - a few months before his death - he was telling me how much he wanted to re-release it, but change and delete some of the material. I went ballistic. I told him there was no way he could do that, you know, I ran right into it. He got a kick out of that and I guess when he was getting everything organized at the end, he remembered that and sent the masters to me, seemingly for me to re-release. So hopefully that will see the light one day.
You are right, a singular guy, no two ways about it. But I don't wanna get into the peers and peerless of the Columbus underground scene. Save that one for the Ron House interview.
Siltbreeze Records here
Siltbreeze Discography (courtesy of Siltbreeze)
Interview by Scott Soriano
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