Monthly Archives: October 2016

Tim Hinely: 15 Questions For… Darla Records’ James Agren

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And… here’s the fifth installment in the BLURT series in which we profile cool independent record labels. What are the criteria for inclusion in the “cool” category? Hey, ’cos we say they are cool, that’s what! We’re making the rules around here, kids. Keep your eyes peeled for the next installment, coming soon, and meanwhile, go HERE for entry #1 (Slumberland Records), HERE for #2 (12XU), HERE for #3 (Saint Marie), HERE for #4 (Trouble In Mind), HERE for #5 (Fort Lowell), and HERE for #6 (Chunklet). (Below: 2008 photo of the Darla Recs staff; go HERE to read the Detour magazine article it originally appeared in.)

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BY TIM HINELY

On the web: http://darla.com/ / https://www.facebook.com/Darla-Records-58278349712/

When did the label form/ what was your original inspiration?

August, 1993 when I received a DAT tape master from Grifters. “Holmes” b/w “Junkie Blood” with cover art by Grifter, Trip Lamkins. I absolutely loved this band. Still do. I asked to do a 7″ single because they were unique and strong enough to stand apart. The single was released October, 1993. I’d intended to do my own label since 1985 (age 22) when a friend who worked at Virgin said, “Y’know what you should do? You love music so much. You should work in the music business.” A light bulb literally went on at that moment. Like duh. Of course. Before that it may have occurred to me abstractly but it was her suggestion that literally set me in motion. I just wanted to learn as many aspects of the business as I could first. So, I was the Energizer Bunny on the path then. KUSF, I-Beam, BMG, RCA, Geffen then Darla. I have always had my head immersed music and surfing. When I was 13 I’d skateboard around Laguna Beach garage sales on Saturday morning, buy records for .10 cent to .25 cents, then skate with an armload downtown to The Record Shed and trade in or sell (what I didn’t want to keep) for $1.00 or more. I started building my collection then and learning. On day the owner, Sam, asked me if I knew how to make change and left me with the cash register drawer open because we didn’t have time to learn me how to work it and split for lunch for more than a half hour. I worked for Sam at The Record Shed on weekends that Summer. What I do now is a natural extension of that first start. I should have been a professional surfer though!

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Who designed your logo? Do you only have one?

I did it myself – freehand with pen and ink. Appropriation was big in the early 90s y’know. The primary Darla logo has elements of two classic American labels from the golden age of stereo, lovingly appropriated. The spiky frame is from the Jubilee Records logo. The D is from the Dot Records logo. There’s a secondary logo, which we haven’t used as much in the past 10 years – the Darla girl in the little black dress dancing on a record. She’s appropriated from the Hula Records logo where she has on a grass skirt, lei and hibiscus. I just changed her clothes. I love classic record label logos.

What was your first release?

Grifters – “Holmes” b/w “Junkie Blood” 7″ (Darla: DRL001).

Were there any label(s) that inspired you to want to release records?

Oh yes. So, many. Capitol, RCA, Editions EG, Rough Trade, Beggars Banquet, 4AD, Factory, Creation, KLF Communications, Touch & Go, Sub Pop, Merge, Matador, TeenBeat, Simple Machines, Kranky, SST, Dangerhouse, Posh Boy, Frontier, Slash, Alternative Tentacles, GNP Crescendo. Endless list y’know.

If there is one band, current or present, you could release a record by who
would it be?

Neil Young. I’d love to work for soul daddy. The Beatles and Neil Young are my top two all-time favorites. Fela Kuti if he were still with us.

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What has been your best seller to date?

My Morning Jacket – At Dawn (Darla: DRL111) by miles, however, Darla does have a strong, active catalog of over 300 titles now.

Are you a recording/touring musician yourself, and if so, do you use your
label as an outlet for getting your stuff out to the public?

No, however, I do have a concept album in mind to make one day…

Does your label use and/or have a presence on any of the social media sites?

Oh yes. Every day. Required now y’know.

Is the Southern California/San Diego music community supportive of the
label?

Yes. Amoeba is good about stocking titles! Our #1 distribution partner AEC is in Irvine and they seriously are the best ever. Whenever I meet local music people they share stories about their favorite releases on the label & etc., however, we’ve always looked globally more than locally. We didn’t emerge with a roster of local talent exclusively. We are supported locally but California-wide as we began in San Francisco and still have strong ties there (Sweet Trip and MCM And The Monster), then moved to Sacramento where we have a ton of good friends we don’t see enough (Holiday Flyer, The California Oranges, The Sinking Ships, Avaleya and the Glitterhawks). And in LA: Lowlights, San Diego: Maquiladora, Tijuana: Static Discos, Fax. So, that’s the big picture locally speaking…

Have digital sales been significant or nominal?

Very, very significant. More significant since digital overtook physical by a hair in Spring, 2015. Digital sales have grown steadily since while physical sales continue to shrink, for everybody.

Has there actually been a vinyl resurgence the past few years?

Yes, however, we still see more CD sales by far. Mucho mas.

What is your personal favorite format to release music?

CD. Reasonable profit margin. Practical.

What new(er) labels these days have captured your attention?

Serein, Carpe Sonum, American Laundromat, Saint Marie, Elefant, Les Disques du Crepuscule, Orange Twin, Factory Benelux, Deep Space Recordings, Essence Music, Seksound, 12k, Aloha Got Soul… Always someone new.

Do you accept unsolicited demos?

Yes. Every day.

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What releases are upcoming?

Corky Carroll – Blue Mango CD/DD. Corky is my hero. The California sound with a core crew of stars in their own right who’ve been his band for decades. So stoked on this project.

MCM And The Monster 2xCD/DD. San Francisco’s ultimate party band (80s/90s) retrospective including the demos and an unreleased third album.

Peyton Pinkerton – Rapid Cycler CD/DD. Guitarist/songwriter from New Radiant Storm King, Pernice Brothers.

Momus – Scobberlotchers CD/DD. It’s actually on his own American Patchwork label manufactured and distributed by Darla. Nick Currie’s perspective/world view/filter is my absolute favorite of all artists today.

In closing…

The label is me and Chandra Tobey, my wife and partner of 26 years. I couldn’t do all that we do alone and it is A LOT. In addition to the label we provide physical and digital distribution service to over 150 labels. We manage a digital catalog of over 15,000 songs. We provide publishing administration for a small handful of Darla artists. Chandra does all the bookkeeping, accounting, receivables/payables. I do the creative and marketing. As physical distribution declines for all, I look forward to focusing more on the label as I enjoy that part most of all.

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Fred Mills: One Man’s Trash Is Another Man’s Pleasure

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Ye Olde Blurte Editore reflects on his 1987-92 musical romp across the Charlotte, NC, skyline…

BY FRED MILLS

Sweet memes are made of this: I recently met a fellow North Carolinian who, it turns out, was living in Charlotte during part of the same time I lived there. We apparently did not know each other, but we did have a mutual friend, photographer Don “Bongo” Swan, who passed away in 1995, so it was natural to share stories with one another. Don was loved by pretty much everybody in Charlotte, and I had the good fortune of working with him on numerous occasions in my capacity as Music Editor for alternative newsweekly Creative Loafing. The conversation left me feeling more than a tad nostalgic, so I did a search online and found a story I wrote for the Loaf in 1997 to mark the paper’s 10th anniversary. Rereading it now, a lot of memories came back, including plenty of Don. He took the photo pictured above, in case you were wondering, of my editor John Grooms, the Domino’s pizza noid, and me as we took part in an attempt to land the Guinness Book record for “most guitarists playing ‘Louie Louie’ at the same time,” go figure. (Somewhere in my files I also have the original image that Don gave me. I need to get that framed.) So at the risk of seeming hopelessly self-indulgent, I thought I’d republish the article here for posterity. Let me just add – this one’s for you, Bongo.

***

Rock through the first five years

Charlotte music from 1987-1992

If, as historians advise us, eras have their defining moments, then so, too, do smaller periods contain their own seeds of identity and character.

Looking back at the first five years of Creative Loafing, during which I served as the paper’s music editor, I get the sense that there were a number of “defining moments.” Viewed as separate points on a time line or as linked incidents on a continuum that has now stretched to 10 years (and counting), these moments do seem to paint CL in a myriad of hues and shadings. Put metaphorically, if Charlotte’s daily newspaper is black and white (and, like the musty joke adds, “read all over”), then this city’s alternative weekly is as colorful and rich in depth as a Hockney painting. And at times, suitable for framing.

One such event that will always represent, to me at least, what CL — as an alternative to the mainstream — was all about transpired in January of 1990. For weeks Charlotte had been fudging its undies over Tom Cruise and the filming of Days Of Thunder at the Speedway. The Observer in particular was a lighter shade of brown at the time, logging the star’s real and imagined movements around town as if he were Mother Teresa touring local leprosy wards. Imagine the chagrin, then, of the daily paper when we reported from the front lines and even buttonholed Cruise for an exclusive interview.

Seems that the Belmont Playboys got the wrap party gig, and the band smuggled me in as their roadie. I duly reported the arrival of Robert Duvall, Johnny Cash, June Carter Cash, Waylon Jennings and Jessi Colter, not to mention the impromptu jam session involving the Playboys and the Duvall entourage (Cash was particularly smitten by the band’s version of his “Rock & Roll Ruby”). More importantly, and sensing my duty as a journalist, I engaged Tom Cruise for our “exclusive interview.” The entire interview went thusly: “What did you think of the Playboys, Tom?” “Man, they were rockin’!”

Yessir, Creative Loafing (not to mention its worldly music critic) had finally arrived into high society. Of course, we had to come through the back door with the servants and hired help, but still …

Damn. Time flies. Here it is, seven years later, and I’m browsing a Tucson record hole when I spot a CD called Wolf Patrol by none other than my ad hoc employer, the Belmont Playboys!

Even though talent naturally rises, it’s hard not to feel like CL had at least a small hand in boosting the band’s career. One of our prime directives from the git-go was “support local music.” Before our first issue was published in April of ’87, editor John Grooms and I had lengthy discussions over what role the paper should play with regards to the area’s music scene. It had always rubbed both of us the wrong way that the media powers-that-be (including Charlotte’s candy-ass radio stations) tended to treat local bands with the same kind of embarrassed condescension usually reserved for that eccentric, flamboyant relative who turns up tipsy and in a feather boa at the family reunion. To that end, we set out to champion our rock ‘n’ roll underground — what the hell, let’s crash the party and get drunk with the rest of the freaks! — and challenge the rest of the populace to keep up with us.

A poorly kept secret around the Loafing office is that Break, the entertainment tab started up in 1987 by the Observer in order to complete directly with CL for advertising revenue (let’s face it, it sure wasn’t for prestige), tried to hire me as a music writer. As the editrix schmoozed me over instant coffee and stale donuts, I inquired as to the level of music coverage Break had in mind.

“There’s a Billy Joel show coming next month to the Coliseum. I think our readers would enjoy a 750 word profile on the man.”

When I mentioned that Antiseen and Fetchin Bones had gigs coming up too, I was met with a blank look. ‘Nuff said.

I’ll admit it, we were as arrogant as we were hip. Case in point: taking it upon ourselves to paint Charlotte’s Springfest celebration in its true colors — a crashing bore or a yuppie circle jerk — we proceeded to muscle a local rock and blues stage into the annual goings-on for a couple of years. When Springfest organizers tried to water down our efforts, we opted out entirely and put on our own Nightfest (the name we judiciously picked over “Counterfest” and “Screw You Springfest”) in ’90, staging bands after sundown in three clubs during Springfest weekend. The idea seemed to fly despite some territorial pissing among competing club owners (don’t ask), so in ’91 we put the call out en masse and wound up with three nights, seven clubs and 27 local acts. The entire spectrum of Charlotte talent was showcased: folk, blues, heavy metal, alternative, punk, psychedelic, etc.

And whether or not any of the bands and performers went on to bigger and better things isn’t the point — what matters is that someone was taking local talent seriously, not as minor league players. (You want serious? Seven months later CL threw its weight behind striking members of the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra and helped put together a fundraiser for the out-of-work musicians. The sight of our beloved Spongetones onstage, backed by seven string and three horn players, as they played a dead-on set of Beatles songs was one of the best Christmas presents we ever received.)

Nowadays, of course, judging by the club ads and CL “Soundboard” listings, it seems that on any given night of the week you can catch a reasonably hot gig. But for those with short memories, let me assure you that there was a point in time when Charlotte’s idea of a thriving club scene meant folksingers doing Kenny Loggins and Eagles covers, blues bands who performed entire sets sitting down, and multiracial reggae-cum-fusion outfits listlessly jamming on Fridays after five on the watering holes’ outside decks.

Likewise, 10 years ago it was simply not an option for a local band to release a CD; I recall a Major Event being defined as so-and-so putting out a three-song demo cassette, and when a regional compilation like Statements Vol. 1 or Metal Mythos appeared in the stores, declaring a civic holiday was in order.

So even though the term “thriving” is relative (and probably cyclical as well), Charlotte would be a far poorer community had it not been for the efforts of a small but dedicated network of musicians, club bookers, fanzine editors, record store owners, independent label and recording studio heads, even the occasional radio visionaries (you may all turn in the direction of Spindale and genuflect). I’d like to think that CL helped transform the scene — oh, screw modesty, I know we did, as anyone who’s ever turned to the “Music Menu” or filled out a ballot for our annual “Best of Charlotte” knows.

Defining moments aren’t necessarily positive in nature. Sometimes they can be downright notorious. (Just ask people who attended the dung-flinging ’87 appearance at the Church of Musical Awareness by punk nihilist G.G. Allin.) No recounting of our first five years would be complete without mention of the Great GWAR Obscenity Bust in September 1990. The incident has long since passed into the realm of rock ‘n’ roll lore, and the band itself has even been immortalized in song and on video the night when Charlotte vice and ALE agents, acting on a “tip” provided by scanning the CL Music Menu concert preview, raided the 4808 Club and toted vocalist Oderus Urungus and his two-and-a-half foot long penis (in two separate paddy wagons) off to jail.

Not to romanticize the event unnecessarily, but a bit of local innocence was lost that night as well. 4808 had long gotten up the noses of local authorities anyway, staging all-ages punk and hard rock shows right in the heart of the downtown area. (Unlike the Milestone Club, which garnered some negative reactions over the years but was “lucky” enough to be located across town on the other side of the tracks, so to speak.) So hosting GWAR, with the show’s explicit, if cartoonish, sexual content, simply blew out the fuses, and when the dust cleared, 4808’s owner had been charged alongside the band with disseminating obscenity, ultimately getting his beer license revoked. The club closed, and Charlotte seemed just a little less friendly a place to be for working musicians. Maybe the arts community too; is it my imagination, or did a theater production have a similar clash with the prevailing Bible Belt mentality around here less than a year ago?

In my own arrogance, it was a rude awakening. I actually believed it was my duty to further the subversive agenda of latex-covered, heavy metal practitioners of sodomy and ritual disembowelment. Antiseen’s as well.

Ah well. In the words of CL‘s staff photog at the time, the late Don Swan, “Fuck ’em, man.”

People and personalities also defined the paper and its first five years. Too many to list here, including the bums who entertained us with their grunts and moans of alcoholic lust as they previewed skin magazines at the convenience store across the street from our South Boulevard location. Don Swan, though, was quite the bon vivant, and I was proud to have worked with him on assignments. In 1995, John Grooms called me with the news that Don had died and asked me to pen a brief remembrance for the paper’s farewell to him. The first thing that came to mind was of one night when Don and I were covering the Scorpions at the Coliseum. I made the observation that “there’s something kinda weird about a 40-year-old man dressed in spandex and wiggling his butt and making goofy faces.” Don thought for a second, then turned to me and stated matter-of-factly, “Yeah, but I bet he gets laid tonight.”

Now that was rock ‘n’ roll. I would end up naming a kitten I’d adopted around the time Don passed away Bongo, in his honor.

I could produce a laundry list the length of Oderus Urungus’ erstwhile member of moments sublime and surreal that stand out in my mind as significant during my tenure at Creative Loafing. Come to think of it, I already did, in the April 18, 1992, fifth anniversary issue.

But overall, what the experience meant to me was being able to treat music and music culture with the kind of respect, passion, and yeah, adolescent irreverence that I thought it deserved. I mean, what could be more pointless yet life-affirming than spending weeks debating behind closed doors with Grooms, then proudly writing a cover story called “The 100 Greatest Intro Guitar Riffs Of All Time”? Or heading south to the Gaffney Peachoid with Swan and Grooms, to help break the record for most people playing the three chords from “Louie Louie” over and over?

When I surrendered my duties at this paper in ’92 to move to Tucson I received two retirement gifts. One was a lifetime (theoretically) gratis subscription to Creative Loafing. Reading it from afar, I’m proud to have watched it grow in size, scope, and just plain huevos.

The other gift was a colorful T-shirt custom-designed by none other than Rene Escarcha, aka Renelvis, aka the only known Charlotte-based Filipino Elvis impersonator. Displayed on the back of the shirt is the music column I wrote in which CL “discovered” Renelvis during his residency as the floor show of a local Chinese eatery — clearly, in tone and texture, one of the paper’s singular defining moments.

I can’t think of a more appropriate way to sum up five years worth of rock ‘n’ roll memories. See the concert, get the T-shirt.