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Brown and Absalom Recordings
Interviewed by: Jason Morehead
Todd Brown is lucky. Through Absalom Recordings, he's doing what I've always wanted to -- start my own record label. I love exposing people to new music, to artists that I feel passionate about. That's why I've been doing Opus for as long as I have. But to take an active role in putting the music I love into the hands of others... Through Absalom Recordings, Todd Brown gets to do that right now. If you haven't heard of Absalom, you will soon. Despite being a relatively young label, it already possesses an impressive catalog, not to mention an artistic integrity that most labels would gladly give up their crossover appeal to have.
This interview was conducted in the midst of the bustling Cornerstone merchandise tent. Absalom's booth, surrounded by woodcuts, seemed like an oddity next to all of the punk and hardcore booths. But then again, Absalom seems pretty odd at first. Surrounded by all of the noise and commerce, Todd and I talked about the label's origins, future plans, and his desire for releasing music that owes more to integrity and truth (and cool packaging) than genre conventions and spiritual agendas.
Morehead: The first place to start is with the origins of Absalom -- when the desire to start the label began, and when you started putting together the releases and the artists you wanted to work with.
Brown: As far as desire, it's something a good friend of mine and I had talked about 2, maybe 3 years ago. My friend Dave Blondel used to run a 'zine called Building Adam and I talked about doing some vinyl issues and some 7 inches and stuff. The thing just never came together financially and we weren't able to do it, but it was an idea that I kicked around for a long time.
I've done a lot of freelance writing and I know a lot of bands, a lot of musicians, and a lot of artists that I really respect that had no outlet to put records out. A specific one was Matt Hopper from the Roman Candles. He sent me a couple of CD-R projects that he'd done, just recorded on 4-track in his bedroom, and it was amazing stuff. Some of the best stuff people sent me all year. And I just got in touch with him, and we kept in touch over e-mail.
He told me that next time he put a record out, he wanted to package it properly because what he sent me was in cardboard slipcases. He wanted to tour, promote it, do the whole thing. But he didn't know how he was going to be able to afford it. And so, just kind of off the cuff, I wrote him back and said "Look, I don't know what I can do, in what kind of position I'll be, but when the time comes, let me know. And whatever I can do to help you out, I'll be happy to do it." It kind of grew from there. I started thinking about it more and it started becoming more legitimately a possibility. I talked to my sister - my sister and brother-in-law are both doctors - and they fronted me the startup money.
Hopper's was going to be one of the first records, his and The Denver Gentlemen. The Denver Gentlemen are fronted by a guy named Jeffrey-Paul who used to be in Sixteen Horsepower, who I interviewed years ago when he was still with them. We struck up a friendship by e-mail and it came out that they had this full record that he'd never released because he broke the band up when he joined Sixteen Horsepower and it just sat on a shelf. When it was clear that I was going to be able to do the label, I dropped him a line and he pulled out the old master tapes. We cleaned them up and that ended up being release number one.
Hopper's would've been release number two, except The Autumns' manager turned out to be a guy that I'd known for three or four years without realizing that he worked with The Autumns. He just shot me an e-mail and said that they wanted to do their new EP with some little independent that may not have the kind of market reach that the people they worked with in the past had, but was somebody who knows the band, likes the band, and will treat them well. So I did that one second. I've got a compilation that just came out that's release number three, and Hopper's thing I'll be pressing right after I got home, assuming he got the artwork done.
Morehead: When you were starting up the label, what were some of the biggest anxieties that you had? I'm sure there were quite a few. But when it first started becoming a possibility, what were some of the big things going through your head that you were worried about?
Brown: The big one is pretty simple. I like pretty obscure stuff. And really, my only criteria for working with anybody is that I like their music, I think it's worthwhile. I just can't afford to be bleeding cash. So that's the big one, that I keep things financially sound. And the day to day stuff, getting your distribution together, getting in with reputable people. A lot of stuff could go wrong.
One of the better on-line shops just went under and I haven't been able to get my product back from them. I don't know if I'm going to, and I'm definitely not going to get paid for what they sold of my stuff. Stuff like that happens. That's unavoidable. The big thing is building up the label to the point where I've got enough of a market, I've got enough name recognition that people know me, know my stuff, and I can count on at least selling enough to break even.
If you're going to do it right, package it right, promote it right, it costs a fair bit fairly quickly up front.
Morehead: You mentioned that you're into a lot of obscure stuff, which is definitely reflected in the stuff Absalom has released so far. But do you think there's a common thread that's woven throughout what you've released? A lot of labels rely on the genre they're putting out as their foundation. But do you think there's a common thread that ties everything you're putting out together?
Brown: I'm definitely not a genre label. There are some areas that I'd never go, that I just can't see myself doing. But in terms of genre tying stuff together, no. I mean, just look at the first few records I've put out. The [Denver] Gentlemen are getting all sorts of comparisons to Kurt Weil and Tom Waits. You, in your review, made the comparison to the music in Delicatessen and City of Lost Children, the films of Jeunet and Caro, which I think is a great comparison. That's how I was describing it to people when I was trying to get it out there. And everybody just looked at me with this blank look on their face because they'd never seen those films.
Morehead: Cretins, each and every one of them.
Brown: Absolutely. They're amazing. And Jeunet's got a new one.
Morehead: Oh yeah... Amelie (aka Le Fabuleux Destin d'Amelie Poulain).
Brown: Release number two, at least in the official releases - the 3" things are their own little beast - is from The Autumns, who are normally a very lush, space-rock band who, who on this EP, are taking a run at 50's-oriented love songs. Release number 3 is a comp[ilation], a benefit CD, and is a mix. I think it actually represents me pretty well. I've got Charity Empressa's stuff, which is lush space-rock stuff. I've got Matt Hopper with the Roman Candles doing power-pop. I've got some alt-country stuff with sixteen Horsepower. I've got a track from Frank Black and the Catholics, a track from Joe Henry, a track from Over the Rhine. I'm really shocked, listening to it, at how well it flows, because I didn't think it would.
Morehead: How did the idea for the limited edition 3" CDs come about?
Brown: The original idea happened because I work full-time at a hostel for homeless men in Toronto. One of the guys on the nightshift is in this really, really intense metallic hardcore band called Shiloh who are really good. They were just cutting their demo and they were going to home burn 3" versions of their demo. He brought one of the early ones in and left it with me for the day. I was playing it with all day! It was the first time I'd really seen one up close. I'd seen them at the shops and stuff, but it's just a really cool format and I really wanted to do some.
And also, I was thinking of ways to build label profile. The benefit [CD] helps because a lot of people with good names got involved in that. It's basically a hybrid of the SubPop Singles Club and the Insound Tour Support. It's a subscription-based set. You buy into the entire series.
Morehead: You've got two series.
Brown: I've got one that's more acoustic-based, that's got Howe Gelb from Giant Sand, Calexico, Johnny Dowd, Songs: Ohia. And then there's a more electric set, with the Autumns, Simon Raymonde from the Cocteau Twins, Paul Mumaw (who plays with everybody in Seattle), and a bunch of other really good people. I do a run of 1000, and I just give 500 to the band and that's their payment.
I'm encouraging people to do home recordings, b-sides, and experiment a little bit. For the bands, it's really low cost. Most of them are either home recordings, so it doesn't cost them anything, or they're b-sides that they've had out but just hasn't fit their regular releases. Like this Songs:Ohia one is a single 13 and a half minute song that Jason (Molina) really wanted to release standalone because it's significantly different from his albums and he thought it'd be jarring. The format just worked beautifully for him.
I'm already lining people up for next year. The bands really, really like it, especially in the more acoustic stuff. When I was rounding people up for the first set, I talked to Secretly Canadian, and they bought into the idea right away and they actually went after their bands. They went after Songs:Ohia for me, they went after Dave Fischoff for me. Fischoff is going to do one in the next set.
Yet going to talk to labels like Deep Elm or Jade Tree, I got one line brush-offs from them. It's harder in [the indie-rock] scene. People seem a lot more uptight for some reason, more self-protective, probably because it's a more defined and more established genre and so people are trying to protect their property a bit more. Whereas the acoustic scene still seems to be more of a community of artists that all seem to know each other and like each other and want to be part of something.
The Black Heart Procession is doing one next year. The Innocence Mission, The Handsome Family... I talked to Pedro the Lion last night and he told me to pencil them in. Damien Jurado's probably going to do one. Dave Fischoff, like I said. So it's coming together real nice.
Morehead: Let's talk about the packaging real quick. Some local artists in your community put together the woodcuts. How did that come about?
Brown: It's just one artist, actually. It's a girl named Jen Bulthuis. For 3 and a half years, I worked at a drop-in center for street kids in Toronto. The compilation I put out is actually a benefit for that place. And for the last year, year and a half of that, Jen and I shared an office. She was the arts worker there, and in my opinion at least, is a brilliant woodcut artist. I love the stuff she does. When I was looking to do the packaging on this I knew... I really don't like jewel cases. I'm using them on most of my 5" releases, just because it's the most affordable option when you're doing short run stuff. As I grow, I want to get more into digipak and gatefold things.
Morehead: Kind of like Constellation Records' packaging?
Brown: Yeah. Constellation was actually who I had in mind when I was looking how to package the 3" CDs. I was really specific with Constellation, to the point that I was going to have them inside the sleeves inside the gatefold, the same way Constellation has them. They were very much in mind. I love the aesthetic they do, I love the music they put out.
Morehead: Have you seen Molasses' releases?
Brown: Oh yeah... those are the most obscenely over packaged records I've ever seen in my life. They're beautiful. I have no idea how Molasses is making money selling their records. They're stuff is so elaborate... it's just silly how much they must be spending to do those.
Morehead: Back to the woodcuts...
Brown: Jen made my logo for me and I had her in mind right from the start when I was thinking of these. When I was thinking about the style of packaging, I knew pretty early on that I wanted to use recycled cardboard type of stuff. I like that more organic type of stuff and especially for the more acoustic set, it suits it really well.
And so, pretty early on, I went and I talked to Jen and said "I'm doing this series and would like to have a consistent feel to it, some sort of design thread that runs through it because it's a subscription thing. The people that have them, unless they buy them straight from the band, are going to have all of them, and I want them to look like a package." I talked to Jen and she really liked the idea and really liked some of the bands that were involved, the ones she familiar with ahead of time, and so she signed on early
She's doing woodcuts for each of them, and then I take those, scan them in, add the design elements, add the text, print them out and take them to a rubber stamp company in downtown Toronto. They make stamps of them and I hand stamp all of the cases myself. It's a lot of work but every place they've ever been, every place I've ever taken them, the first thing people comment on is the packaging, so it's worth it.
I'm still playing with ideas for the next set. I really like what these look like, but I'll probably change it up, just so they're not more of the same. You don't want to overdo, you just don't want to overstay your welcome. I'm still playing with ideas. I'm not sure. I'm not even 100% sure that they'll be on 3" [CD's]. They most likely will be. I might go to 10" vinyl. Something like that. Whatever it is, it's going to be a fairly unusual format. I'm still working more on getting the artists together and then I'll start thinking about the packaging.
Morehead: The first comp you put out is a benefit for a shelter you worked at. And you're currently working at a hostel for homeless men. Do you see Absalom doing more community-based releases like the benefit comp for the causes that you're interested in?
Brown: I believe pretty strongly that the arts should be involved socially. I believe everybody should be more involved socially than they are. So probably at least once a year, I'll do a significant benefit project. The next one I do will probably be for a place called Casey House, which is a hospice for AIDS patients in Toronto. I'm still not settled on what it'll be. It might be another comp, it might not. I don't know.
I really like what Badman does with their benefit things. The "Shanti Project" discs are really, really nice. Too many benefits I think are just throw-offs. You can tell that they're kind of slapped together fairly quickly. And they're good, a lot of them are still really good, but I really like how Badman had this specific concept in mind, went out and found the artists that really suited that concept, and then built something. It flows much, much better than most benefits because of that. I like what they do. They are a very, very good label.
Morehead: When you're putting out releases, are there any concerns about that artist's spirituality? I know that you're working with some non-Christian artists. Is that a concern for you, or are you more interested in artists with good artistic integrity?
Brown: Yeah, the spiritual issue... it's not a criteria, I'll put it that way. I mean, I'm a person of faith and I don't make any big secret of that, and so... there's a certain element that I'm naturally drawn to so you'll see people that are addressing spiritual issues. Will that only be from within the Christian mindset? No. Will I only put out things that address spiritual issues? No, absolutely not.
Really, even the people that are addressing "Christian" issues... I tend to be much more drawn to people that are from the outside looking in. People that are on the fringes of things interest me much, much more. I'm a huge fan of Sixteen Horsepower. Big, big fan of Jim White. Big fan of Low. These are people who aren't particularly orthodox, but there's something jarring about it, something a lot more vital to it. Too many of the people that are within the faith, especially within North America, you're taught to think and speak and be a certain way and far too much of it... it just comes out like platitudes. There's just no guts to it.
And faith, to me, is something that should be fairly visceral, it should be pretty earthy, it should get pretty dirty at times. The stuff that's hit me the strongest recently... have you ever seen the movie "Pi", which deals a lot in Jewish Kaballah? After I saw that, I went out and bought a book on Kaballah and it's fascinating stuff, it's fantastic. Really interesting... The only thing is, I want people I respect, as people and musicians. I want to put out records that I'm proud to have my name on. I want to put out stuff that I think has lasting value and will endure. That's it. I'm drawn to certain issues, the same as anybody else is, but do I have some sort of spiritual agenda? Not at all. I know where most of the artists I work with are at, but it's not a question I've ever asked.
Morehead: It's not part of the contract...
Brown: No. It's not even a question I probably ever will ask, unless it comes up naturally. It doesn't matter. You do what you do, you are what you are. The Christian subculture has this mindset that they're the only purveyors of truth, which I think is silly. People aren't stupid. Your life doesn't automatically become meaningless if you're outside the Church. There's meaning to be found everywhere. I'm just looking for people who are looking for it, and are addressing it, and wrestling with it. That's all.
Morehead: Are there any closing statements you want to make about Absalom. Is there ever going to be an Absalom Stage at Cornerstone one year?
Brown: I don't know. I can see some of people that I'm working with playing here sometime. The Charity Empressa thing... I was talking to Eric (Campuzano) today and he's talking about possibly doing some live shows around it, which I think would be brilliant and that's something that would go over here. I've had some people ask whether or not The Denver Gentlemen would ever play here. I think Jeffrey would be into it. I have no idea if the others guys that he's playing with would. He'd mess with a lot of people's heads here, especially if they start checking him out and find information on Hoitoitoi, his other band. That would really screw a lot of people up. That's a really, really openly sexual project. It'd be kind of funny actually. I'd kind of like to see people's reactions.
If I had stuff that's appropriate
for this market... I'm not pursuing Christian distribution. I'm not actively
advertising my stuff in the Christian market, by and large. All of my distribution
so far is mainstream distributors. If I have something that works here,
obviously I'm here. If I have something that works in this marketplace,
I'd be stupid not to use it. I have some decent connections in this world,
so I'd be silly not to use them. Obviously, with the people that are on
the Empressa record, I'm going to work it in this area. I'd be just dumb