And… here’s the fourth 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), and HERE for #4 (Trouble In Mind). Coming soon: Chunklet. [Pictured above: James Tritten and Tracy Shedd, presumably in earlier days…]
BY FRED MILLS
As the editor of this fine publication and website, I am frequently surprised and delighted by the gems — obviously gleaming and in the rough — that my crew of contributors unearth for us. Longtime writer Tim Hinely, also a blogger for us, has frequently been the source of such riches, and his ongoing “15 Questions For…” indie label feature has yielded more than its share. Around the time he launched the series I met James Tritten of the Fort Lowell Records label; James and his wife, musician Tracy Shedd, had recently moved from Tucson, Arizona, to Raleigh, North Carolina, where, coincidentally, I was living and working (in addition to doing BLURT) at indie record store Schoolkids Records. We hit it off — not the least of reasons being that I had lived for 10 years in Tucson myself during the ‘90s and we had a number of friends and plenty of landmarks in common — and I always looked forward to our in-depth music conferences whenever he and Tracy would drop by the store to put Fort Lowell items in the bins or just yak about stuff.
(As an aside: My abiding love and respect for indie labels runs deep, as I’ve been writing about their bands and their releases pretty much all of my adult life, at least since the late ‘70s when I was doing my own series of indie rock magazines. I also used to contribute to Magnet magazine’s monthly feature in which an indie label was profiled via a template of more-or-less stock questions that served to get the word out about the label and also to give the readers and consumers a sense of who was actually working behind the scenes to get the label up and running — and of course ongoing. That, then, has gone into what Tim Hinely and I are trying to accomplish with our own series here at BLURT.)
Ergo, this “15 Questions For…” James and Fort Lowell. It doesn’t hurt that I’ve dug, literally, every piece of wax he’s put in my hands. How do I count the ways? From our feature on Saint Maybe, erstwhile Patti Smith Group Oliver Ray’s project, as well as the feature on Tracy Shedd, to reviews of moyamoya (glom onto that sweet colored wax!) and La Cerca and the Good Graces, that’s how. Among many. A couple of ’em also landed on my Top Albums of 2015 list, recently published here at BLURT as part of our 2015 best-of roundup. Yeah, you might say I’m biased. But that’s what love is, ya know?
I’m also pretty damn chuffed about his and Tracy’s new collaboration, Band & The Beat (they’ll be touring in January; dates started in Charlotte on Jan. 9 HERE or after the main text), so in a final flourish of pure unbridled subjectivity, I’d like to kick off the feature with their new single. Enjoy…
BLURT: When did the label form / what was your original inspiration?
JAMES: It was November 2009 in Tucson, AZ, when the idea popped in my head to start up a record label. I was home sick with a Man Cold, sleeping on the couch next to our record collection. The 7inches caught my attention, and I took a sharp turn onto Memory Lane, listening to all of the old singles from my youth of growing up on the East Coast; bands like Common Threat, Greensect, Gizzard, The Raymond Brake, Mercury Birds, #1 Family Mover, Jennyanykind, etc.
Back in the ’90s, everyone released 7inch singles because it was cheap and easy, and it’s just what you did. You’d swap them with other bands on the road like business cards. I remember it costing close to about $1.50 a record to produce, and most of us just recorded the music in our homes. Black and white photocopied covers usually manufactured at your place of employment without your boss knowing; the whole project was very low-fi, and those records are some of my favorite to date.
When my wife Tracy Tritten, otherwise known as singer-songwriter Tracy Shedd (who has released albums with Teen-Beat, Devil In The Woods, Eskimo Kiss Records, and New Granada Records), and I moved to Tucson in 2006, we noticed that not many of the younger local bands were releasing their music on vinyl. Usually they would have a CD-R at best, but most would just tell you to download their music… for free, off of their website. (Music for free?)
It’s not to say no one in Tucson was releasing vinyl. Golden Boots was probably putting out some of the best packaged records, along with Naïm Amor. And yes, of course, Howe Gelb, Giant Sand, and Calexico releases were coming out on vinyl. But the kids, the new bands in town, playing at The Red Room (RIP) or The HangArt were not quite there yet (the whole indie / punk tape craze hadn’t even happened yet).
At that same time, I was coming up on a year anniversary for me driving a Vespa scooter to and from work each day. I had bought a 1976 CJ-5 Jeep with 35″ tires and a 4″ lift a few years earlier when we first moved to Tucson (featured here in Tracy Shedd’s video for “Whatever It Takes”). It was a real “Rock Crawler”: something to do for fun on the weekends. However, with only about 8-miles to the gallon for gas usage, driving that beast to work every day was not the most economically sound choice, so I bought a scooter to handle that daily trek and save some money.
One day as I passed the Jeep that had been parked, unused, for countless weeks, I had a vision of selling the Jeep and putting the money to better use: starting up a record label. I remember standing next to that Jeep and calling Zach Toporek from Young Mothers to pitch the idea of releasing his band as our first record. He said yes, and the Jeep went on the market immediately. The rest is history, as they say.
Who designed your logo? Do you only have one?
The only Fort Lowell Records logo is actually a silhouette of the statue that stands in Fort Lowell Park in Tucson AZ. Fort Lowell was the neighborhood that I lived in while in Tucson, so for me (personally) it made sense to call the record label Fort Lowell Records, to mark that time in my life. I also knew that there was only one Fort Lowell in the world, in Tucson, and I wanted something the city itself could own: a record label that was obviously tied to Tucson (and I believe Cactus Records was already taken).
I felt the label’s logo had to represent the area of town, and there is nothing more iconic that the statue that stands on Craycroft Road. So, I walked outside my house down to the park and snapped a picture of the statue. Then, got onto Photoshop to make it what it is.
It also reminded me of Vanguard Records’ logo, and I am huge fan of Vanguard. Not sure if anyone else knows this, but the band Stereolab actually got a lot of their artistic design for their earlier releases from old Vanguard records. In fact, I am pretty sure that name itself was a term Vanguard used, much like RCA Records’ “Living Stereo” series.
What was your first release?
It was a 7-inch record for Young Mothers, for a song called “Come On, The Cross.” The B-side features what is still quite possibly my personal favorite song that Fort Lowell Records has released: a track called “Good Sword.” I’ll drop the needle on “Good Sword” from time to time, and I swear life just stands still, it is so captivating. Have you ever heard a song like that; one that just takes over everything within you and around you? Zach Toporek nailed it with that song. He’s even got some twelve-part harmony in there; it’s breathtaking.
I knew Young Mothers were going to be our first release from the first time I saw them. Tracy Shedd (who I play guitar with) was booked with Young Mothers at The Living Room in Tucson. Zach did not know us, and we had never met him. Within the first few strums of his guitar and belts of his huge live vocals, we were hooked. At the time, the music reminded us of our old friends from Austin TX, Silver Scooter; just good old American indie-pop (pure and fun).
The music made me get up and dance. At that moment, they were the best band in the world to me. So when the idea of Fort Lowell Records came about, I knew exactly who I wanted to call first. I think that is how it should be for a label owner: you should be that ‘freak fan’ that just can’t get enough of the band you are releasing. And that’s what a band should want from their label: an overabundance of enthusiastic support.
Were there any label(s) that inspired you to want to release records?
Sarah Records, Teen-Beat, Pop-Narcotic, Decoder Ring Records, Magic Eye Singles, as well as the band from Boston – Charlene – and their self-released singles on their own label, SharkAttack!. At the time, it was all about the 7inches, and these labels had it down, especially Sarah Records. Studying their releases really helped me be creative with presenting a professional design for each record, but keeping costs down and staying under or within budget. I spent months researching various options and ideas, yet insuring that quality was never compromised. I’d like to think we were successful with this challenge; I’m very proud of the records we’ve released.
If there is one band, current or present, you could release a record by who would it be?
Two bands… Schooner and Gross Ghost; both bands from North Carolina. We’ve been fans of each band before ever moving here; we have actually played shows with Schooner in the past when touring through North Carolina. In fact, when we did a show at Slim’s Downtown with Schooner back in 2011, we made a promise to them that if we moved to North Carolina, we’d release a record for them. The delay is totally my own fault, and I am hoping someday to live up to that promise. [Count the BLURT braintrust among the fans of those two bands, James! –Tarheel Ed.]
Both bands are simply amazing and very much underappreciated; more people need to know about these guys. Their music is pure, honest, and simply great. The songwriting is there, the live performance is there. I would love to have an opportunity to record a record with each of them, and welcome them to the Fort Lowell Records family.
What has been your best seller to date?
Hands down, Howe Gelb’s 7-inch record that was part of Record Store Day 2011. It was actually a split release between two of his own projects: ‘Sno Angel, which features a choir from Canada, and Melted Wires, which is a jazz quartet made up of members from Giant Sand and Calexico. Neither track on the 7inch had been released on vinyl before, and they are both simply stunning. “Spiral” is the ‘Sno Angel track, while “Cordoba In Slow Motion” – the Melted Wires song – really showcases Gelb’s Thelonious Monk influence. We technically sold out of the record in three weeks, but then about a year later we had some returns from our distributor. I was actually very thankful to have a few records sent back to us, since there were so many people that missed out on it the first time. Now I’ve seen that record go for up to $40.00 on eBay, which I find somewhat flattering (in a weird way). I’ve bought my fair share of over-priced hard-to-find records on eBay, just because I had to have it.
Honorable mentions for best-selling records go to Young Mothers….music video?, our split between Wet & Reckless and Tracy Shedd, and the Luz de Vida Compilation, all of which have also sold out (from our inventory) over time. (That reminds me, I need to update our website and take some of those down.)
Who is the most famous artist on your label, and why do you think that is?
With the exception of Howe Gelb, which is the obvious answer, there are three artists that share the limelight:
Tracy Shedd has had a lucrative career all on her own, without any influence from Fort Lowell Records. Tracy has a number of albums out with Teen-Beat, as well as a few individual releases with Devil In The Woods, Eskimo Kiss Records, and most recently New Granada Records. She has been featured on TV shows such as Dawson’s Creek and One Tree Hill, as well as had her music in one of Catherine Zeta-Jones’ movies. Having Tracy as a part of the Fort Lowell Records’ roster has definitely helped with developing an audience for the label, which we are very thankful for. Tracy is also sharing her latest project with Fort Lowell Records: a duo dream-pop / synth-pop project called Band & The Beat, and their debut release “21 [Digital 45]” is Fort Lowell Records’ latest release.
Next would be La Cerca. I learned about La Cerca back in 2001 when Tracy Shedd released her first track on a compilation from The Unlike Label which also featured La Cerca. During the time I lived in Tucson, I would often go on record stating that Andrew Gardner from La Cerca was one of the most under-appreciated songwriters in Tucson. [Amen. –Old Pueblo Ed.] I was over the moon when the opportunity came up for Fort Lowell to release La Cerca’s latest album ‘Sunrise For Everyone.‘ [Go HERE to read the Blurt review of the album.] So the day Andrew called me to tell me that Xemu Records wanted to sign his band and re-release their album, I knew Andrew had finally receive the recognition that he deserved. In no way was I upset; I was simply proud of Andrew, and extremely happy for La Cerca. Being picked up by another label to help grow your career, I feel, is a sign of success. I would never want to hold anyone back from that.
Recently, the Good Graces experienced every band’s dream: having a national artist ask to take you on the road as their opening act, giving you exposure to thousands of people, and not mention an amazing experience altogether. ‘Close to the Sun,’ the Good Graces’ latest album, just happened to get into the hands of The Indigo Girls, who fell in love with their music and asked the Good Graces to join them on the road for their summer tour. The Good Graces had an awesome time, and gained a lot of attention from the opportunity. Since the tour with The Indigo Girls, the Good Graces have been featured on Daytrotter, had a few live television appearances, and are now heading out for a West Coast Tour in 2016. We are looking forward to share more of their successes in the coming years ahead. [Go HERE to read the Blurt review of the album.]
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?
As stated before, my wife is Tracy Shedd, whom I have been playing guitar with since high school, so I was on her 7inch and Luz de Vida track with Fort Lowell Records. I am also the other half to Tracy’s new duo project, Band & The Beat, which is the newest release for Fort Lowell. Band & The Beat is meant to be a “husband / wife” project, while Tracy Shedd was specifically Tracy’s own songwriting. With Band & The Beat, it is the very first time that I am playing keyboards / synthesizers. We started the project back in June of this year, and I have been diligently learning the ivories ever since. I would not object to partnering with another record label for future Band & The Beat projects, if it made sense. We were simply so excited about Band & The Beat, and the first two recordings: “21” and “Buoy,” we just wanted to get the music out right away to the public.
Regarding social media, which have you used and what to you are the pros and cons of using it?
For social media, I have used it all. From Friendster, to MySpace, to everything that people can’t live without today. It was four years ago when I stopped using Facebook and Instagram with Fort Lowell Records. I decided I was going to only use Twitter to promote the record label. Then, on January 1, 2015, I dropped Twitter as well (I stopped using it, but still have not deleted the account). On the internet, Fort Lowell Records only exists as our website: http://fortlowell.blogspot.com. The website is a blogsite, because I like the format of it. I post things on there, the same way others might do so with social media, and I’ve been much happier; much more focused on what is important.
Is the local music community supportive of the label?
Fort Lowell Records’ success has been the support of the local music communities (note: “communities” being plural). Tucson is where Fort Lowell Records was born, but Tucson is not where we are personally from. Tracy and I are from Jacksonville, FL, but now we are making roots in Raleigh, NC. The local communities of all three areas have actually been extremely supportive of Fort Lowell Records. Tucson will always be home to Fort Lowell Records, and that is what I would want for the label; that is why I gave it an indigenous name. I want to continue to support artists from Tucson, and be involved as best as we can. With the recent release of two bands from Jacksonville, moyamoya and Hey Mandible, the Bold New City of the South has embraced the label with open arms. We recently hosted a label showcase with moyamoya, the Good Graces, Hey Mandible, and the debut of our new project Band & The Beat; the show was billed as Tracy Shedd, but we performed as Band & The Beat. All of the record stores in the Triangle Area (as well as all over the state) of North Carolina have shown great supportof Fort Lowell Records with record sales. Schoolkids Records in Raleigh NC has sold the most copies of La Cerca’s ‘Sunrise For Everyone.’ I think once we get into releasing more North Carolina bands, Band & The Beat being the first, we will start hosting more live performance with label-mates in the region. [Below: La Cerca]
Have digital sales been significant or nominal?
I would have to report the digital sales have been a good continuous revenue stream for Fort Lowell Records. We partner with both The Orchard as our main digital distributor, and we use our own Bandcamp page (which gives direct sales to Fort Lowell Records). Having the digital outlets seems to work well for the out-of-print records too, or for fans overseas; giving people an economical choice. I find having the digital option does not hurt us in any way, which is why I have always made it available. Personally, I don’t buy my music to listen to digitally, but I do understand that there are customers that prefer this service, and I don’t feel we should limit our outlets when it honestly costs our label no extra money to have the digital option available.
For Band & The Beat [pictured below] the release is currently only available as a Digital 45 (or what I like to call a “Virtual 7inch”). This decision was made simply because of the “speed to market”: the track “21” was written, recorded, mixed, mastered, and released all within the month of October (in less than four weeks’ time). Band & The Beat was heading out on tour, and we wanted to have a release out for people to enjoy. I can see doing more Digital 45s with Fort Lowell Records, especially to help bands in similar situations.
What are your thoughts on the current vinyl resurgence?
I think it is a fantastic thing, although I am also one of those guys (there are a few of us) that find it hard to call a “resurgence;” I believe vinyl never went away. But I get it; no, Barnes & Noble and Best Buy were not carrying vinyl records 5-10 years ago, and now they are, which, again, I think is great. I’ve been buying music on vinyl ever since I was a kid, and I am happy that is so much easier to find vinyl records in almost any store; heck, Guitar Center is carrying them now.
It is a fact that this resurgence, or increase in demand, with vinyl has caused a shift with the manufacturing timeline of the records themselves. This is evolution at its finest; those who will survive will be those that can evolve. You now see a lot of labels going from standard vinyl releases to limited lathe cut releases, simply because they can get a lathe cut record out faster. Cassettes tapes are also receiving a lot of attention and support these days. I attribute this to the longer production times (and increasing costs) for vinyl records; again, evolution. A cassette tape can be manufactured and released much faster, and cheaper (overall). And if the kids are buying it, and they have the tape decks or Walkman units to listen to the music, then evolution is a success, and this vinyl “resurgence” is driving creativity; survival of the fittest. For Fort Lowell Records, you are seeing our very first digital-only release for Band & The Beat, as well a sign of the times.
What is your personal favorite format to release music? Thoughts on other formats?
I like releasing vinyl records, as well as making music available for radio airplay. At our house, this is how we listen to music. There is only a record player hooked up to an amplifier that has a built-in receiver. If we are not listening to an album on wax, we are tuning in the airwaves. We are extremely lucky to live in Raleigh, as Raleigh has what I feel is the best “Indie Rock” radio station in the country: WKNC 88.1FM. Now, let me add, I believe KXCI 91.3FM in Tucson is the best “overall” radio station in America; they are a publicly supported radio station, as opposed to one that is part of a school, college, or university. KXCI is very diverse, and open and supportive to all aspects of their community; KXCI is a major part of the spirit of Tucson AZ. But when it comes to my own personal taste in music, WKNC here in Raleigh, hands-down, spins some of the best new, fresh, solid Indie Rock, Indie Pop, Dream Pop, etc., as well as Hip-Hop, I have ever heard. Every one of my favorite new bands has come from listening to WKNC via the airwaves. I am always happy letting the needle rest and dialing into 88.1FM.
So, when I am not listening to WKNC for new music, I am enjoying music on my turntable; there is nothing else like it. That is my favorite format to use when releasing new music. I’ve been collecting records ever since I was turned onto Echo & The Bunnymen in 6th grade. But it wasn’t until purchasing Stereolab’s “Ping Pong” 7inch back in the early ‘90s that I actually understood the difference. I had already owned their ‘Mars Audiac Quintet’ album on CD at the time, and the 7inch was given to me as a promo. When I got home and heard the single, I noticed that there were elements of the music that I did not recognize with the CD version. I turned around, went back to Now Hear This (record store in Jacksonville, FL; RIP) and bought every Stereolab album on vinyl, and have been purchasing all music on vinyl ever since.
I’ve succumbed to the convenience of MP3s. With Fort Lowell Records, we do offer a digital download with all of the vinyl records, and as a customer, I too enjoying having this added benefit. I keep my latest favorite albums on my phone, and plug in where ever I am, without having to carry around a CD or cassette case filled with albums. I get it; it is much easier to take MP3s with you than CDs or cassettes. Because of this, I’ve dropped all CDs and Cassettes for my personal collection. I do understand that there are customers that still purchase these formats, so I can’t say Fort Lowell Records will never release either. But I have stuck to vinyl and digital formats, along with getting music on the radio, for Fort Lowell Records simply because that is how I personally listen to music.
What new(er) labels these days have captured your attention?
I’ve been a big fan of People In A Position To Know (PIAPTK), Captured Tracks, Burger Records, and Trouble In Mind (TIM). I love everything that all of these labels are doing. PIAPTK has been releasing limited edition lathe cut records before anyone even knew how to pronounce the word “lathe.” Their releases are some of the most innovative records cut; I promise you Jack White’s Third Man Records has been taking cues from PIAPTK for years. Captured Tracks simply can’t go wrong with whatever band / artist they release; their taste in music is impeccable. Burger Records is changing the game for everyone, and I love it; they are at the forefront of this evolutionary change that we are all witnessing, and they will be the first to survive. I always admired Trouble In Mind’s direct approach, especially when they first launched their label. TIM would drop a stack of new releases (7inches) for various amazing new unheard-of bands, with no artwork, just TIM’s standard low-fi produced label sleeve ,and each record would blow your mind. Out of nowhere, “BAM!,” TIM was on the scene, killing it. All four of these record labels continue to force feed the world with some of the greatest new music and freshest ideas available.
Do you accept unsolicited demos?
[Pictured below: Fort Lowell LP by Tucson’s Saint Maybe, featuring Winston Watson and ex-Patti Smith Group guitarist Oliver Ray. The band was profiled at BLURT in 2013.]
Fort Lowell Records Website: http://fortlowell.blogspot.com
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