SONGWRITER, AUTHOR AND… LABEL OWNER? John Wesley Harding

The songwriter’s
audacious new Popover Corps imprint gets by with a little help from his
friends.

 

 

BY FRED MILLS

 

To call John Wesley Harding – that’s Wesley Harding Stace to
his mum; simply “Wes” to close friends –  a modern-day Renaissance Man
might seem a lofty pronouncement. While undeniably accurate, I suspect he’d prefer,
as we move into this new, post-Bush era of frugality and humility, to be
described as simply a “gifted multitasker” – as befits a gentleman who’s been
known to juggle several careers at once, including Singer/Songwriter and
Recording Artist (numerous albums released since debuting in 1988 with It Happened One Night), Published Author
(2005’s Misfortune and 2007’s By George, both issued under the name
Wesley Stace), and Artist-In-Residence (at New Jersey’s Fairleigh Dickinson
University).

 

This week he adds another title to his C.V.: Variety Show
Host, unveiling the first in an ongoing performance series called “John Wesley
Harding’s Cabinet of Wonders
, slated to take place Feb. 11, March 11 and April
15 at NYC’s Le Poisson Rouge. Featuring musical entertainment, comedy, literary
interludes and even ventriloquism, the only things missing are ballet and
circus acts, and maybe a Baldwin brother or
two plugging a new film. Conan O’Brien, watch your back.

 

There’s also the matter of Harding’s new album, Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead,
featuring JWH backed by members of the Minus Five along with Kurt Bloch, Mike
Viola, Kelly Hogan, Steve Berlin and others. It’s due out March 10 on Harding’s
own Popover Corps label (www.popovercorps.com)
in association with The Rebel Group (www.therebelgroup.com),
and you can read all about it in an in-depth Harding profile in the March issue
of BLURT, due on newsstands in just a few weeks.

 

Meanwhile, though, let’s rewind back a sentence to Popover
Corps, because it’s this other addition to the Harding C.V. – Record Label Owner – that’s been raising
eyebrows.

 

Through chance, while on vacation not long ago I ran into
Harding in a New York
area used record store and wound up corresponding with him. Not long
afterwards, he unveiled the Popover website and, knowing I’d been a record
collector and music fan since the ‘60s, he was curious to get my take on his
fledgling enterprise. I must confess – and I mentioned this to Harding as well
– that the very idea of launching a new record label in the current economic
climate seemed, well, daft. There’s
not a music fan alive that wouldn’t love to own and operate a record label, of
course; being able to unearth and then help bring to the public’s attention
cool music is the ultimate expression of fandom. But we all know that the music
biz is in the toilet right now, and furthermore, artists are proving, in
increasing numbers, that you don’t even need the patronage of a label anymore
to get your music into the hands of your fans and actually earn a reasonable
living doing so.

 

Certainly in the case of
Harding, who’s done his time on both major labels and indies, Popover represents
an instance of the latter phenomenon, and he previously tested the waters with
another imprint, one he dubbed WOW, in order to self-release his fan-oriented Dynablob series of rarities and live
material. Several years ago Harding even hinted, none-too-subtly, that he’d
just about had his fill of the mainstream music industry, telling a Vanity Fair reporter (in what was a
contentious, now semi-legendary, interview) that the world would be “a better
place without all the Richard Bransons and Clive Davises.” So it makes sense
for him to finally come to a point where he’s his own manager, label head and
marketing person.

 

What seems to fly in the face of logic, however, is to make
Popover a full-service, multiple-artist boutique label. It’s one thing to cut
out the middleman and the overhead for yourself;
why then turn around and take on the role of middleman and incurring oftentimes-nebulous expenses to promote other people’s artistry?

 

But that’s exactly what Popover is about. Harding has
fashioned his label as a means to release albums from contemporary artists he
admires – among them, Kurt Bloch, Clancy Gaines (an old-time roots-punk combo
from Greensboro, NC, who recently worked with Gillian Welch and David Rawlings
and are described as “Hank Williams meets Joe Strummer, or Josephine Strummer”),
and Seth Tufts (an Englishman currently residing in Tennessee who Harding calls
“the bastard child of Lucinda Williams and Kurt Cobain”) – as well as archival
material from a host of older performers, many of them so hopelessly obscure
that the average punter would wear out a keyboard and a couple of mice just
doing Internet searches on them. Yours truly literally wasted several hours
until I was able to dig up anything on the likes of songwriter Tucker Crowe
(whose ’86 album Juliet reportedly
made Jeff Buckley weep the first time he heard it; Sufjan Stevens and Damien
Jurado are also huge fans), The Suave Loins
of Darkness (their limited-to-1000-copies/Thurston Moore-influencing 1971 LP Revolutionary
Musical Wheel
practically never pops up on eBay or at record fairs) and Zeroville (a ground-zero NYC punk band
who issued a lone 45, played a few gigs, then vanished). And even then, most of
the info I found came directly from Popover.

 

At the site, Harding and his stable of A&R execs –
most of them culled from his circle of friends and fellow authors, like Rick
Moody, Nick Hornby, Jonathan Lethem, Vendela Vida and Sherman Alexie, although rocker
Robyn Hitchcock was apparently the one who brought the Clancy Gaines combo to
Harding’s attention – have painstakingly assembled bios, images and song
samples for all the artists on the Popover roster. In addition to the ones
already mentioned, bands who have records out on Popover include the Betsy
Rosses (whose Feist-meets-Yeah Yeah Yeahs album Circle of Stars is currently in heavy rotation at the BLURT
offices), Human Human, Onslaught of Autumn, Rory Spillane (another BLURT fave
whose Aussie mashup of pub-rock, rootsy pop and grunge brings to mind, oddly
enough, the Stones-Dylan pastiche of the Masked Marauders, which Rhino Handmade
reissued a few years ago), Strange Angels and Tyger Tyger – full details at the
site.

 

As you’ll read below in my interview with Harding, he
was inspired by labels like Light in the Attic and the Numero
Group, so in that context I have to admit that the man’s
heart is in the right place. Both Moody and Hornby also spoke with us, and
they, too, seem to have a keen interest in promoting the types of artists that
speak to the musos and collectors of the world. Clearly, it’s all about the
music: spreading the wealth, and shining a spotlight on those who rightly
deserve it. So maybe starting a record company in 2009 isn’t such a cockeyed
idea after all – it’s downright inspirational.

 

After all, you just gotta love a label with the twinned
mottos “Popover – oh no it isn’t!” and
Robbing the rare of its scarcity value,”
y’know?

 

***

 

POPOVER, PART ONE:
THE START-UP

 

 

BLURT: First of all, why start a record label NOW? Everyone has
heard about how dire things are for the music business nowadays; I assume
you’ve read Steve Knopper’s recent Appetite For Self-Destruction book
about the demise of the biz in the digital era. So unless someone comes into an
inheritance or has a sugar daddy, 2009 appears to be a time for retrenchment,
not branching out.

 

JOHN WESLEY HARDING: Well, perhaps if I were more prudent,
I’d realize now wasn’t the right time, but it’s more a question of me being
ready to do it than the economy inviting me. Besides, what’s wrong with a
sugar daddy? There are so many great records languishing out there that
for a variety of reasons none of the bigger reissue labels will take a punt on.
The people interested in the records we’re releasing don’t want to download
inferior mp3 files; they want the liner notes, artwork and the whole
package. 

 

 

 

I came across a quote from a mid-‘90s where you reflected upon your
Sire Records era and concluded that “being on major labels was impossible.” You
subsequently spent the next decade recording for various indies, but if I
recall correctly, in that notorious Vanity Fair profile a few years ago
you stated flatly something to the effect that “being on small labels was not
practical.” Isn’t that slightly contradictory? Given that you’ve experienced
problems with both majors and indies, how do you see Popover Corps as an
antidote, or at least a reasonable alternative?

 

Well, my own case is like everyone else’s: I might have
meant that “being on major labels was impossible” because none of
them would sign me. As for indies, you ended up wondering just why you were
giving them ownership of your music when you could do it all yourself – but I
was too lazy to do it myself and was, in fact, the perfect artist for the old
school paradigm.

 

And that was the spark for Popover: I was going to release Who was Changed and Who was Dead on
Popover and I thought it would be lonely without some label mates, plus people
like labels to have an identity. And it all rolled from there.

 

I can’t claim Popover is going to break up-and-coming
artists, and to those people, I say: “See if you can get some cash from Warner
Bros. If you can’t, pop over.” We are going to give neglected artists the
treatment they deserve and hope to bring great work that means a lot to us to a bigger audience. Besides, there
are too many songs written already – I’m guilty – so it’s time to focus on the
what’s already out there. Don’t think of Popover as either major or minor: we’re on a whole different
scale. 

 

 

Were there other record labels you admired or looked to as models for
how you wanted to do yours?

 

I looked to curated record labels like Numero Group and Light in the Attic that mine the
record bins for the like-minded junkies who appreciate the package and the authenticity
of the music: great labels, both. And I just know that every single person has
that one album in their collection,
an album they love that no one else knows about, lost in the mists of times. So I started casting around for ideas
from people whose opinions I respect, and many times that was enough. I would
search it out – or better yet, have them do it – and release it. I imagine
that’s how it happens on those [other] labels too, because one guy’s taste,
i.e. mine, isn’t enough for a label like this, it’s all about a community of
shared taste. Genre is unimportant: that’s very ‘80s.

 

Was it hard to track down the artists once you’d decided you wanted
them for the label? Obviously it wasn’t problematic with someone like Kurt
Bloch [the northwest-based producer and Fastbacks guitarist has a pair of solo
albums compiled on Popover’s Second and
First
], who has worked with you, but some of the others are astoundingly
obscure.

 

Ironically, the most difficult person to track down was Kurt
Bloch and he’s one of my best friends! There is one album, I will admit,
that hasn’t quite been cleared but there is a check waiting for that band, in a
bank account earning interest, as we have already sold over 600 copies. In the
case of some artists, I made the A&R person find them – sending Rick Moody
to meet Onslaught was pretty fantastic – and in one case we had to fly to the UK, drive to Rotherham
and take the band out for a curry (non-recoupable).

 

But as I say, a lot of this was done by recommendation. I’d
never heard of The Betsy Rosses, but read Vendela Vida’s description:
beautiful! I think with MySpace, Facebook etcetera, it’s a lot easier to find
people than it used to be.

 

 

What’s the hardest part about starting a label and, relatedly, what
kinds of snags did you encounter in arranging the licensing, getting bonus
material, etcetera, for the archival releases? Conversely, any “happy
accidents” that occurred in the process of getting the label off the ground and
having some of this material reissued?

 

The hardest part of starting a label is coming up with a
name. I was in Watch Hill, RI this summer at the St. Clair Annex having
breakfast and the waitress said “Popover?” and someone else said,
“Oh, no it isn’t”.  And I
thought it seemed like a good name for a label.

 

A lot of majors won’t reissue with extra tracks, because of
licensing issues, and then do weird things like get that drummer for the Foo
Fighters to play a song on a Dennis Wilson reissue. For us, that wasn’t a
problem because we just did whatever the bands or their fans wanted.  In
the case of The Suave Loins of Darkness, it turned out that the extra songs
were in the care of the art director: he found the masters of the B-sides under
the 4-track of the Human Human B-sides, which was an incredible stroke of luck.

 

 

What artists were on your wish list for your label that for you just
couldn’t get, and – if you can disclose this without airing too much dirty
laundry – why?

 

Struwwelpeter, obviously, but it turns out that they are
going to be reissued some German label. [Editor’s
note: Initially rumored to be Italy’s Akarma, the reissue label is now
reportedly going to be German prog specialist Bellaphon; Bear Family had also
expressed interest in the band’s back catalog but ultimately bowed out.
] We nearly had our hands on the
Rodriguez album which was suggested to me by [The Exception author] Christian
Jungersen, but by then it was already gone [to Light in the Attic]. There’s no
Duncan Browne left for me to release, but he’s an all-time favorite of mine.
And also there’s a very good Carl Oglesby album on Vanguard – but it turns out
that it can’t be released for obscure legal reasons, because he was in the SDS
or something. I’m not going to air any dirty laundry, because there really
isn’t any; I could make some up for good copy, but everyone we asked was either
happy to come on board Popover or had things going on elsewhere. 

 

 

Who do you have on your radar for your next round of releases?

 

The trouble is, it’s like football transfers in England,
you want to keep it under the radar as long as you can, so no one else finds
out. I hate to make it seem so cloak-and-dagger, but it is a little. Culture is
very accelerated these days. For example, I was out in the store the other day
and I heard a song I knew and worked out that it was a cover of the song “Houses” from
that fantastic Elyse album that was reissued last year. That album had been
reissued about a day! But I can tell you that a lot of forthcoming picks will
be mine because my only pick of the first twelve releases was me. Here’s a
clue: the paper is pink sticky rice. I’m
sure you know what I’m talking about – and we have some extra tracks.

 

 

****

 

INTERLUDE: THE
A&R TEAM

 

RICK MOODY

Rick, you’ve dipped your toes in the
music business a few times in the past – I know, because your Wikipedia says
so, and anyway, I have some Fly Ashtray records – so moving over into A&R
work for a record label isn’t that huge a stretch. What do you think of the
Popover label’s efforts thus far, and why did you sign on with Wes?

MOODY: Well, you know, it’s a really bad period for the book business. It’s a
bad period for the record business, too, I recognize, but it’s a sign of how
bad the book business is that I really felt I had no choice but to moonlight in
the music biz. Actually, I also owed Wes some money relating to an ill-advised
wager on a certain Arsenal game. So that, in addition to the fact that the book
business is just for shit right now, made it inevitable that I would get into
the A&R racket at Popover. If you have to do it, hawk somebody else’s art
form, you might as well appreciate the vision that’s in play.

 

I think Popover has, generally speaking, hewn close to its
love of things with great lyrical inventiveness. Most times, these days, young
songwriters sound like they got their start in the greeting card business. But
no matter what musical idiom you’re looking at, here at Popover, the words are
stunning. I think that’s a real accomplishment. But when I get the debt cleared
up, and when Obama’s stimulus plan allows people back into the bookstores, fuck
it, I’m out of here.

The band you’re working with for
Popover, Scotland’s Onslaught of Autumn, had a not-unwarranted reputation among
journalists, promoters, managers and even fans for being difficult to deal with
– they even got thrown off a Sensational Alex Harvey Band tour once for
overindulging, which if you know anything about SAHB is quite a feat – so I’m
wondering what drew you to them in the first place, and how did you approach
them for putting together the Clouds
Massing on the Horizon
compilation? Have the members mellowed out any since
the seventies?

You know, when Wes and others suggested I get to know Onslaught a little bit, I
was really worried. I mean, I’m a middle-aged guy, I’m about to be a father, I
don’t drink anymore. Was I really going to be able to deal with a bunch of
washed up fat guys who laid on the Red Brigades propaganda a little thick, and
who were all missing teeth and drinking around the clock? I had a period of
infatuation with Trotsky and with Artaud in the seventies, who didn’t? But
people grow up.

 

Anyway, when I flew out to Glasgow to meet up with the band,
or with the ones who were still alive, Alisdair and Donnach, I found two guys
who could just as well be middle managers at an office supplies outfit. I
suppose they, too, had some demons when they were young, but I’m thinking they
also had overzealous publicists or something. Back then, they were probably
looking for a way to get a bit of a reputation. The way they tell it their tour
manager had to work really hard to get them thrown off the Alex Harvey Band
tour. Donnach, especially, was really unwilling to foot the bill for the
television sets that got thrown out the hotel windows. He and Alasdair were
conscious of wanting to put the band’s profits right into their pension funds.
It was only Finlay, the original drummer, who bought the hype.

 

I know this all doesn’t sound terribly sexy or anything, but
it made assembling Clouds Massing on the
Horizon
pretty easy. I don’t
know what to tell you, that’s just how the story goes. In the course of my
association with the band, I did find out that there is actually another band called The Onslaught of
Autumn, some kind of metal band from Minnesota.
Maybe those guys have pentagrams carved in their chests or something. [Editor’s note: Shortly after this interview
was conducted we learned that the U.S.
Onslaüght of Autumn has the name copyrighted in North
America and their lawyers had sent a cease-and-desist order to
Popover. Label owner Harding indicates that all subsequent pressings of the
album will have sleeve and label art altered to read Onslaught Of Autumn U.K.
]

 

 

NICK HORNBY

 

Nick, a lot of observers would say that,
among all of Popover’s A&R execs, you’re the one most naturally suited to
the job description. I’d be journalistically remiss if I didn’t ask – have
there been any High Fidelity-esque moments at the label thus far?

 

HORNBY:
This is my first time working for a record company, and it’s been much tougher
than I thought –  heartbreaking, sometimes. The powers that be – and you
know who I’m talking about  here –  are only really interested in
making money, and for  every god-like genius I’ve persuaded them to sign,
I’ve had to let another nine go.  I thought I was going to be working for
Seymour Stein or someone hip like that; I’ve ended up working for an indie
Simon Cowell.

 

Tucker Crowe: how did you know about
Tucker, or track him down, and what is he like? Was he aware of the cult
following that had built up around him since he fell off the radar? I’ve only
seen the Juliet, Naked album once, in the early ‘90s at a record fair,
and it was priced so ridiculously high I had to pass, although I later was able
to buy a bootleg CDR of it…

 

I’ve
known Tucker for a while – he got in touch after something I wrote about him,
which was pretty amazing, seeing as he’s been a recluse for over twenty years.
 Nobody even knew about Juliet,
Naked
, although pretty much everyone of my age owns a copy of [the
original] Juliet. When you say you
own a bootleg, you’re lying. Showing off. Don’t do that.

 

***

POPOVER, PART TWO:
BEHIND THE SCENES

 

 

Wes, you’ve got an intriguing roster of A&R folks as well: most of
them are novelists or poets – among them, Rick Moody, Jonathan Lethem, Vendela
Vida, Sherman Alexie, Nick Hornby. This seems to be almost a statement on your
part that Popover isn’t going to be “business as usual” in terms of how most
labels operate: hiring long-term industry vets,
you-scratch-my-back-I’ll-scratch-yours insider types, and the like. True? And
what do literary-minded individuals bring to the table that others don’t?

 

HARDING: Don’t imagine for a second that any of these people
are sitting in an office with me! I ask their opinions, when we’re in the same
city we have a little “record club” and we talk about music,
everybody has their enthusiasms, and if it all coalesces then Popover puts out
the record. Perfect. Writers spend a lot of time alone thinking about music and
a lot of these guys have better taste in music in they have in literature.
That’s only partly a joke… 

 

As for “business as usual,” I just hope we do any
business at all! But frankly we don’t really have to make money, so much as not
lose money.

 

 

Talking of which,
Nick Hornby, I presume as a joke, referred to you as an “indie Simon Cowell,”
when he had envisioned working for a visionary like Seymour Stein. You were signed for Sire by Seymour Stein in 1989 –
would he be an influence?

In some ways, absolutely. He had an incredible knowledge of obscure old songs
and was a kind of human jukebox over dinner. The trouble with, and the great
thing about, Sire though was that they signed so many people. Seymour’s taste was fantastic and some of his
signings were bound to be hits. I was reading a Bill Drummond book the other
day and he said Seymour
had a propensity for signing too many pretty boys, or something like that. But
there was a specific note saying he wasn’t referring to me…. or maybe I
imagined that.

 

 

Robyn Hitchcock is
one of your few musician A&R execs, and he toured not all that long ago
with the band he’s repping for, old-time roots/punk mavericks Clancy Gaines, so
he has an obvious affinity for that group. But I have to ask, how in the hell
did you convince a consummate artiste like Hitchcock to get involved
with this side of the business? He’s like the guy voted least likely to have a
tolerance for PowerPoint presentations and boardroom chitchat.

 

You don’t know Robyn.

 

 

In general, what kind of long-term business model do you envision for
the label? So many artist-run enterprises talk big at first but ultimately
fizzle, either because there was no coherent plan in place or the artist him-
or herself grew bored with the day-to-day operations. I’m sure a lot of people
rolled their eyes recently when they heard about Gene Simmons launching an
imprint that would be specializing in Canadian bands exclusively… There’s a
reason we call these things vanity labels sometimes.

 

To start with, there in nothing wrong with a vanity
anything: a vanity mirror, fine, Vanity
Fair
– great magazine, excellent novel. But I can’t claim to have a long
term business model beyond the American economy, so we’re doomed already. The
point is to put out great music and pay the artist. I don’t know much about
other record labels, but I guarantee we’ll do both of those things. What better
business model could there be?

 

 

It’s expensive to run a label, of course. So how will you approach
marketing and promotion in the digital era? Will you venture outside the box,
as you did with the A&R staff, or will you take the traditional route, in-store
promotions, hiring p.r. firms to work the press and radio, etcetera?

 

A lot of albums are subscriptions based, so they sell out
the day they released. Did I mention that? It’s a vital part of our business
model! People like the matching packages. We’ll indulge in the things you
mention – press, radio – but our artists know exactly how much promotion we’re
putting into these releases and also how much love.

 

I once asked Los Lobos to be on WOW, the label that I
self-released a number of my Dynablob albums and a very beautiful David Lewis album called Ghost Rhymes – it was David who suggested [Popover artist] Rory
Spillane to me – with the following pitch: “I will spend no money on your
record, no promotion, nothing… but I’m going to be quite clear about that up
front.” We’ve all been on labels who did that but didn’t tell you. Lobos
didn’t sign for WOW, but maybe they’ll sign for Popover! 

 

 

Your upcoming “John Wesley Harding’s Cabinet Of Wonders” stage show
features, among various guests, your A&R exec Rick Moody. Will any of the
Popover artists take part as well? I’d imagine it might be expensive jetting,
say, Rory Spillane’s band in from Australia, but Tucker Crowe, though
reclusive, lives just down the road in Philadelphia, or so I’ve heard. And late
‘70s NYC punk band Zeroville is back together now, I assume as a result of
Popover putting out their Couldn’t Get a Gig at the Pep LP, so…

 

We’re really excited about the new Zeroville album, though
they might not be the right vibe for the Cabinet. Having said that, they are,
at least, local. Tucker Crowe would be quite a coup. You know, I’ll probably
ask every single act we have. I’m touring the show around the country with
Eugene Mirman as “Wes and Eugene’s
Cabinet of Wonders,” so maybe we can have some local guest appearances. I
should have made it “Popover Presents”!

 

Lastly, referring again to the Vanity Fair piece – for the
record, I thought you were treated unfairly, particularly in their choice of
paparazzi photos – it was interesting how you said it was more gratifying to be
a published author than a working musician. “The hours are easier” is one quote
of yours that sticks out in my mind. Because I get the sense that now,
after working with the Minus 5 and recording what’s unquestionably one of the
strongest, most immediate-feeling albums of your career, you might say just the
opposite. Merely the fact that you’re committing to music so wholly by starting
a label from scratch is evidence of that. True, false, or somewhere in the
middle?

 

This question is far too well thought out to be a last
question, to which I can give a short glib answer! The irony is the musician’s
hours are way easier and you get applauded at the end of the day. As Nick Lowe
said: “They pay you for the other twenty three hours.” Nothing’s
worse than staring at a computer screen or a blank page all day. 

 

As for my own life, I don’t consider there [to be] too much
difference between writing and music: and I’m very happy to be able to do
either. It’s weird to be on the other side of the fence, music-business wise:
but then, I’ve been on kind majors and unkind majors, indies who cared and
indies who didn’t give a crap – so at least that experience should count for
something.

 

I’m just happy Popover can pay tribute to the great music
that has gone before. In many ways, to me and to my “A&R” staff,
what we’re putting out sounds more modern than what’s happening today. As Nick
Lowe also said: I love my label!

 

 

[Pictured above: JWH, by Bill Wadman; Popover Corps main
entrance, by Annie Leibovitz]

 

 

 

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