YEP ROC 15 (Pt. 3): Happy Birthday, Yep Roc!

An
overview of the N.C. label, celebrating its 15th anniversary this week, along
with an interview with its founders. Meanwhile, taste-test some Yep Roc beer,
below!

 

BY JORDAN LAWRENCE

 

Starting Thursday, North Carolina’s legendary Cat’s Cradle
will play host to a three-day anniversary celebration. The festivities will
honor the first 15 years in business for Yep Roc
Records, but the 20 acts set to descend upon the Carrboro
venue are likely to make that number seem a little low. The festival’s complete
schedule can be viewed
online here.
Note that BLURT (in conjunction with our
sister business Schoolkids Records), is a co-sponsor of the event, and you can
read our interviews with some of the artists – Jukebox The Ghost, Chuck
Prophet, festival master of ceremonies John Wesley Harding, and Jim White –
elsewhere on the BLURT website throughout this week.

 

Nick Lowe, who headlines night one, was a key figure in the
New Wave movement of the ‘70s and ‘80s and a mentor to Elvis Costello. Robyn
Hitchcock started in the late ‘70s with The Soft Boys, creating jangling gems
that helped establish the sub-genre now known as power-pop. Sloan and Fountains
of Wayne helped move that style forward in the ‘90s while fellow participants
Los Straightjackets were transforming rockabilly into a vaudevillian spectacle
complete with luchador masks. John Doe, an early punk luminary who these days
dabbles in tuneful folk, headlines the final night alongside The Minus 5, a
rock outfit formed in 1993 that often includes R.E.M.’s Peter Buck.

 

All of these acts are on Yep Roc’s current roster, a
strangely aged assembly for a label with a comparatively short history. And
while they didn’t start the imprint to promote acts who long ago cemented their
reputation, Yep Roc’s founders are glad that it has become a cornerstone of
what they do.

 

“I don’t think that was specifically a goal,” says Yep Roc
co-founder Glenn Dicker, talking via speakerphone alongside his label partner
Tor Hansen. He says the business started as a way to simply put out bands that
they liked. “I think the goal for us was to try to do something that we really
believed in doing and felt passionate about going to work every day doing and
working with people we respected and wanted to work with. That’s really what it
was all about. And being able to derive a decent living from it was obviously
important.”

 

He and Hansen were friends long before their business
venture. They played in a few touring bands together, and starting in 1988,
they worked at Rounder Records, a successful independent imprint in
Massachusetts that was gobbled up by Universal Music and has since been sold to
the Concord Music Group. During his time at Rounder, Dicker and a partner
started Upstart Records, a small, accurately named label distributed through
Rounder that released albums by future Yep Roc artists Nick Lowe and Los
Straightjackets. 

 

Despite Dicker’s inroads with these established musicians,
Yep Roc didn’t immediately try to extend Upstart’s success. The label’s first
releases were from smaller bands in around the label’s N.C. home. In the early
days, they took on records from funky, psychedelic rock band Big Ass Truck,
rollicking country outfit Mercury Dime, 
the rockabilly twisting Tonebenders and Chapel HIll power-pop outfit
Mayflies USA.  When it started, Yep Roc’s
roster boasted scant commonality when it came to genre, unified only by
proximity and the passionate interest of Dicker and Hansen. These days, the
label’s line-up looks a lot different, but that artist-first philosophy
endures.

 

“As
a record label, we act on the behalf of the artists that we represent,” Dicker
says. “We buy into what their vision of their art and their music is, and we
let them create in their way. We just try to create a foundation and basically
a home for them to be able to do that. I think that’s probably similar to most
independent labels, the way they think. We are maybe different in that we have
a lot of different types of artists and music.”

 

This approach eventually helped Yep Roc land uncommonly
veteran outfits for a label of its size. Within a few years, Hansen and Dicker
added Upstart alumni Nick Lowe and Los Straightjackets. As an independent label
with no other affiliation, Yep Roc is able to personalize their services to
their artists, giving them a level of attention and enthusiasm that overworked
major labels just can’t manage. Stepping in at a time when the traditional
industry powers were struggling to cope with the rise of a digitally driven
market, Yep Roc collected a contingent of respected artists, using them as a
foundation to sign and support up-and-comers.

 

“We
wanted to continue to raise the profile,” Hansen explains. “That was a driving
goal. Being an underdog, small label, taking on an artist that already had a
history, whether it was through Warner Brothers or whoever else, we would be
presented with these opportunities. We felt like if we focused on them, and we
gave them more attention and positioned them through the same outlets but
giving them a little more boost or attention, we would super-serve what they
had experienced previously. I think we’ve done that several times, whether that
was working with Nick Lowe or Paul Weller or with Los Straightjackets. Whoever
it was, these were people that had had a career in music where we had a bar
that we could actually sort of break.”

 

This
veteran roster has sometimes created a perception
of Yep Roc as an indie rock retirement home, a landing spot for traditional
sounds and artists content to rest on their laurels. But this misconception discounts the work of stalwarts like Hitchcock
and Mod-revivalist Paul Weller, artists whose recent releases explore a diverse
array of genres and textures.

 

Yep
Roc has leveraged the success of these established acts to support new talent.
Among these artists is The Old Ceremony, a Chapel Hill outfit that shades
stately pop-noir with off-kilter accoutrements of glockenspiel and fiddle as
well as jagged distortion courtesy of singer and guitarist Django Haskins. The
band’s fifth album, Fairytales and Other Forms of Suicide was released
by Yep Roc in September.

 

“I’m
a fan of a lot of the people who are working with Yep Roc,” Haskins says. “When
thinking about what ties them all together and what ties us to that group is
that we love, for lack of a better term, classic songwriting. That doesn’t
necessarily mean from any particular era. I think it exists right now just as
much as it existed in the ‘50s. I think there’s an appreciation for that.”

 

Like
the acts on its roster, Yep Roc isn’t content to lean on its success. For this
week’s anniversary celebration, the label distilled its philosophy into a
fitting tagline: “Artist Driven Since 1997.” In its first 15 years, Yep Roc has
been whatever its artists needed it to be, a practice that Hansen and Dicker
plan to continue.

 

“It’s
a continuing learning process,” Hansen says. “We’re continuing to rethink
things. I guess the one thing that we have definitely learned is really to
always ask ourselves, ‘What is the value that we’re bringing to these artist
relationships that we have?’

 

“Not
just what you would define what a record label is because certainly that has
changed. We can make the definition whatever it needs to be if we’re willing to
ask that question and really think about it.”

 

Below: belly up and
have a taste of the brand new Yep Roc brew!

 

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