As a majority of my America Is Just A Word interviewees happen to be musicians, it’s great having Darren on board to give some perspective of the other goings on that helped transform emo through the decades. (Of course, an exception to all this is Ian MacKaye, who’s role as a musician and Dischord Records co-founder gives him a completely different perspective than most folks involved in the book.) When it comes to emo in the 90s, Jade Tree was one of the few places where things were really popping. The record label quickly rose to fame with The Promise Ring and continued to soldier on from there, releasing music from numerous indie emo “big names” (whatever that oxymoronic phrase means) such as Hot Water Music, Texas Is The Reason (a split with TPR), Lifetime, Jets To Brazil, Joan of Arc, Pedro The Lion, Cap’n Jazz (the label introduced many people to the band with their double-disc discography) and many a popular non-emo act such as Fucked Up and My Morning Jacket.
But, I’ll let Darren explain it all himself. Enjoy:
How’d you get into music and, more specifically, punk music?
Darren Walters: “A few things happened around the same time that finally got my fully into punk once and for all.
I had been into new wave, alternative and the like and eventually met a few people who were also into the same type of music, including punk. In and around the same time, my best friend ended up being sent to military school where he became immersed in punk. His friends at military school helped him stock up on great records which he brought home during his breaks and left with me. Him and I quickly became 100% into punk rock in about 1985 or so and began going to shows and seeking out as much info as we could on punk rock and watching movies like Suburbia and Decline of the Western Civilization over and over again.
What was it like growing up in Wilmington?
DW: “Wilmington is at the northern tip of Delaware and the biggest city in the state. Essentially, it is a suburb of Philadelphia as it is only about 25 minutes outside of the city.
It was-and is, for the most part, devoid of any culture during my childhood and continues to be so to this day. It’s basically your typical American suburb and it’s the place that I still call home and have form most of my life.
Having spent most of my life here I’ve come to like it, which is interesting considering I spent those formative punk years trying to think of a way to get out. Growing older and being able to leave, I got used to the idea of being in Delaware. It also became advantageous for Jade Tree to remain in Delaware as it was inexpensive compared to cities like NY or SF where Tim and I had often discussed moving the label to (in fact, Tim lived in NYC for many years).”
On the Jade Tree site, it says that you and Tim were pretty involved in the DC punk community. Considering Delaware isn’t exactly a walk away from DC, how did you balance a life at home with going to shows and building on a community in DC?
DW: “I was involved in the DC scene in the sense that I was going to shows an awful lot in the MD/DC/VA area and Jade Tree worked with plenty of bands from there over the years. DC was one of our support systems and one of our scenes and we of course looked up to many of the people involved in it both past and present.
It was easy enough to go back and forth from DE to DC. Tim had grown up in DC and still had family there, I had a girlfriend there at one time, Jade Tree had bands there, tons of friends and so on. It was just something that we did without thinking. And it’s less than 2 hours away. I used to be able to get to the Damnation house in an hour and 10 minutes on a good day. Granted, I was doing 90+ mph, but the point is that this was a drive that Tim and I made almost weekly, or at least monthly, for years.”
How did you and Tim meet?
DW: “My best friend growing up attended college in MD and met Tim at a show in DC. They started a label called Axtion Packed together and that’s how I met Tim, through him.
Once my label, Hi-Impact, was beginning to fall apart, coincidentally so was AP, so Tim and I decided that perhaps it would be best if we combined forces to work on new label.”
What was it like being in high school and then college, trying to balance the life of a student and the work needed to run a label (be it Hi-Impact or Jade Tree) and a band as well?
DW: “It was crazy of course! At times it would be fairly simple because there wouldn’t be much to do in the very beginning. However, when there would be a new release in production or a record would need to be mailed out to radio or to all of the awaiting orders, it would take hours, if not days, to do so. That could be intense. Especially because for the first few Jade Tree releases, many of the records were put together by hand. You can imagine how long it takes to hand assemble 4000+ 7″s & CDS for instance. We would enlist every one we knew to come on over and enjoy free pizza, get the latest release and help us out. It was a community thing and it helped Jade Tree get off its feet tremendously.”
I’ve got an odd relationship with downloading. I’m usually outspoken against it when discussing the subject with most of my friends, but usually for a variety of reasons that you really can’t articulate when these types of conversations boil down to lots of yelling. I’ll diffuse the normal “record labels and artists” and “pirating” and blah blah blah arguments that are usually the focus of the downloading conundrum for folks.
A big frustration for me with the design downloading is a certain culture that’s been generated because of its appeal. One would assume that, with millions and millions of songs and bands at one’s fingertips that one would relish the opportunity to listen to at no cost. In theory, it’s a great benefit for the consumer.
But really, from what I’ve witnessed, it (more often than not) creates a Consumer culture, with a big “C.” Considering the ease with which one can accumulate albums, the potential to seek out a hard-to-find gem in the same way that so many vinyl junkies can be whistfully nostalgic about is really gone. A few clicks of the mouse and it’s yours. And just about any other album you can think of.
So, instead of pouring over a piece of music, one can just accumulate a massive sonic library packed with things that they might never properly touch or listen to. The ability to say ‘I’ll download it” and not only not think twice, but not think about the album or song after the music is in your possession is increased tenfold.
How do I know this? Well, it could be from witnessing friends who ingest music without a thought (be it to the amount of time that was put into the piece of music or to the potential legal ramifications of their actions or merely stating the thought/sentence “I’ll just download it”) and, more often than not, usually let the music lay waste.
Or I could also know it from my own actions in the past. Not necessarily with illegal downloading of the sort: I maybe illegally downloaded a few dozen songs at the tail end of high school and promptly deleted most of those songs when I acquired the albums from other means. It’s more of my music acquisition in other areas. For example, I was a DJ at my college radio station for 4 years. During my shows, I’d pop a CD into the stereo system linked to the airwaves, eject it after it played, and then popped it into my computer. With literally thousands of CDs at my beckoning call, I could go on music binges, often uploading more songs than I could possibly listen to. I’d often try to, but I still come across the spare album I’ve rarely listened to (which makes for a fun listen in and of itself). (You could argue that, this action too, is just as illegal as downloading. But beyond my own arguments of merit, you have to take into account that most record companies realize that when they send music to a radio station – which are usually run by people who love music – people at radio stations are going to want what comes in the mail. Especially – gasp – college stations.)
At the same time, I also know I’m something of a music fanatic, and I take the time and energy to comb through blogs, newspapers, magazines, flyers, record stores, friends conversations, etc etc to find out about music. But my “Consumer kulture” really comes into play with a large majority of music listeners in the country. This mass is the same line of people who, decades before leading up to now (and even including the present), got their music listening “habits” from the major sources of music distribution, be it radio, television, newspapers, magazines. They listened to whatever landed on their grid, be it good, or bad (especially “or bad”). So now, today, when downloading – and illegal downloading – account for a majority of music consumption today, why is it that “bands” and “musical artists” such as, say, Nickelback (who I pick on a ton, but for good reason) continue to not only retain a large popularity of corporate radio/television while most critics and people who consider themselves to have musical taste largely detest the group? When Joel Tenenbaum‘s court case against the RIAA recently went to trial, were the illegal downloads in question the products of someone who poured through the dregs of the net in order to find these jewels? No. Nothing but Nirvana, Smashing Pumpkins, and other 90s alternative ephemera that, while good music, is the kind of collection that corporate radio has been surviving on since 1991 and Joel himself was reared on as a child. Most folks who are sued for illegally downloading tend to get caught for gathering some monolithic singles, which happen to be under the ownership of the big record companies in America. I would be hard pressed to see the RIAA hightailing it after some kid who illegally downloaded Black Flag’s My War and a couple of Jade Tree albums, though color me red if that indeed has happened. However, that would be the mark of someone who used downloading to seek out unfamiliar, unavailable, and unique musics and took the time and energy to do so. And that’s not the case that I see with a majority of people who download.
Of course, that is all a mass generalization, but sometimes generalizations are needed in order to gain a perspective on a certain culture…
Anyway, this brings me to a certain situation one of my downloading fiend friends was so quick to throw back in my face:
A handful of weeks ago, I discovered an excellent MediaFire folder through last.fm, and it is like discovering a holy grail of sorts. It’s officially called “Emo: 1985-1999,” though the url attachment is “emoisdead” (a query I’d argue against, but that’s another aside). Upon opening the link, I was blown away. 36 pages of 1st and 2nd wave emo acts. Many of them rarer than rare. Obscurer than the most obscure, out of print 7″ out there. For who knows how long I was so overwhelmed all I could do was click through the pages and stare in awe. There was some stuff I’d only heard whiffs of. And all on one site. And all for free.
As I said, I haven’t downloaded anything that hasn’t had the artists consent since the tail end of high school. I’ve got ye olde emusic account, I still buy CDs, I’ll grab stuff from blogs, and scour the net for musician-approved downloads. But, from all the huff and puff and ribbings I’d give friends who’d download a torrent without hesitation or afterthought and (sometimes) no interest in the artist, it would be an awful conundrum for me, especially when I’d discuss this. Because how could I not. This was a find!
Of course, it came back to hit me in the ass with one friend. And of course, whenever I’d provide some sort of insight into why I’d want to download some of this stuff or any claim I thought was legitimate, the potential for real discourse was closed. And I understand why, and I certainly deserved a good ribbing.
But, for me, there’s so much more than just Consumption. I’ve got an academic-strength interest in emo, and, after all, I’ve got America Is Just A Word in the works. And I believe I’ve still got them principles to back it up. There’s plenty of stuff on the mediafire site, and plenty I won’t download. There’s some stuff from Gravity Records or Dischord that I just won’t dare touch. The music is still in print, I can still purchase it. I know (and in some cases, have met and talk to) the artists and labels benefit from this, that there’s not some convoluted big-label hierarchy that most of my money would be going to, but the people who’s work I genuinely support. (Though I don’t necessarily have any qualms for/against major labels and taking money away from them… I don’t care for a lot that goes on in their system, but man, there are some great bands on major labels.)
But the other stuff on there? Some of that stuff just isn’t available anymore. And some stuff never was available.
Like Strictly Ballroom, which featured The Postal Service’s Jimmy Tamborello on bass. Their 1997 record Hide Here Forever came out on Waxploitation Records and is out of print and not even available on iTunes in the US (and only partially elsewhere). And it’s in the MediaFire emo folder.
Or Trocar, who’s Citywater album, which is apparently available on Self-Satisfied records, except for that any link to purchase the CD from the location on myspace in nearly impossible to get to without some anti-virus spyware popping up warning of various hazards, and they even say download it if you so feel like having it and give a link too (though it ain’t their preference). And it’s in the MediaFire emo folder.
Or The Promise Ring’s 3 track demo, a tape that was never meant to be created to be distributed for commercial sake. And it’s in the MediaFire emo folder.
Or Watercolour, a band I can’t track down for the life of me, and one which has no discernible song titles on their unreleased album, Stories About Old Rich White People, but it’s available on the emo-themed MediaFire site.
I’m excited to announce yet another contributor to America Is Just A Word. Darren Walters, co-owner of Jade Tree records, has given me the thumbs up for the interview process, and his voice will be more a welcome addition to the roster of interviewees. Although most of the first-person interviews I’m collecting will be musicians, Walters’ input is very much appreciated, especially as Jade Tree’s impact on the international emo scene is nothing but important. Since forming in 1990, the label has signed/released music from many an important emo act: The Promise Ring, Cap’n Jazz, Pedro The Lion, Hot Water Music, Texas Is The Reason, Jets To Brazil, Girls Against Boys, Joan Of Arc, Owls, Lifetime, Juno, and countless others have released music bearing the Jade Tree logo over the years.
Walters’ own experience will be able to shed some light on the impact of emo from its point of underground popularity through its watershed moment and to the present, how it affected Jade Tree, and how it affected those who were assigned to the term, including Jade Tree. It’ll be another great addition to the book, which is really beginning to accumulate a number of great contributors!
From the looks of a post early in the day by Stereogum, one would have thought it was the end of the aural world for fans of underground music. Although the reports later in the day dismissed the rumors that Touch and Go Records was finished; instead, the still dreadful news that the label will no longer be able to distribute the collections of numerous smaller labels and will be letting go of 20-person staff. Here is label head Corey Rusk’s statement:
“It is with great sadness that we are reporting some major changes here at Touch and Go Records. Many of you may not be aware, but for nearly 2 decades, Touch and Go has provided manufacturing and distribution services for a select yet diverse group of other important independent record labels. Titles from these other labels populate the shelves of our warehouse alongside the titles on our own two labels, Touch and Go Records, and Quarterstick Records.
Unfortunately, as much as we love all of these labels, the current state of the economy has reached the point where we can no longer afford to continue this lesser known, yet important part of Touch and Go’s operations. Over the years, these labels have become part of our family, and it pains us to see them go. We wish them all the very best and we will be doing everything we can to help make the transition as easy as possible.
Touch and Go will be returning to its roots and focusing solely on being an independent record label. We’ll be busy for a few months working closely with the departing labels and scaling our company to an appropriate smaller size after their departure. It is the end of a grand chapter in Touch and Go’s history, but we also know that good things can come from new beginnings.”
This is a big news story in manycircles, and not just music fans. Touch and Go will be known for its service of providing and fostering a wealth of great artists, be they Jesus Lizard, Butthole Surfers, Big Black, Slint, TV on the Radio, Ted Leo, Pinback, !!!, Polvo, Bedhead, Naked Raygun, The Meatmen, Yeah Yeah Yeahs…. the list could go on.
Touch and Go logo
In many ways, Touch and Go is a representation of a narrative of a time since passed, having turned from a seminal hardcore zine into a full-fledged independent label breaking some of the hottest oddball bands from the 80s until today… it grew to a tremendous point for a small operation, and without the need for “world domination” ideals and hype-mongering use and abused by what is arguably the other “big” independent American label today, Sub Pop. Despite it’s operation, Touch and Go remained in a low-down mindset similar to Dischord that was more about fostering a community than forwarding some music revolution agenda… no wonder Ted Leo found it to be a great place to call home.
Today’s event is remarkable only because whatever the mish-mash of events – be it the recession or downloading, etc – this is the first big-name, independent label that’s been hit in ways that hasn’t been publicized… meanwhile, it’s nothing but Armageddon talk with the majors. But unlike the majors, Touch and Go isn’t primarily a business, in that it’s all about the benjamins… it still sticks to its guns and original notions of putting out music. The changes at the label seem to be on level with that occurring at newspapers nationally, though with potentially better prospects: during boom-times, these entities grew to enormous proportions to fill a potential want/need, but now that there is no necessary need or ability to cover it, they must withdraw from their growth a little and focus on regrouping and the very idea holding their entity together. In the case of newspapers, it’s keeping the public informed; in the case of Touch and Go, it’s keeping the public artistically and musically endowed.
Obviously, the big loss is to all those labels who no longer have the distribution network and base that Touch and Go has/had. In years past, this could (and did) kill off many a smaller label, as record stores were a predominant method of selling music. However, with the tight network of online sales, the decline of record stores… this part basically writes itself. Still, some of the smaller labels might be in harms way. Perhaps not Jade Tree, the emo label that came to fruition in the 90s and brought emo acts such as The Promise Ring (who inversely helped bring Jade Tree some cred, as an earlier post states), Cap’n Jazz, Lifetime, Jets to Brazil, Texas is the Reason, as well as other bands such as… My Morning Jacket. Perhaps other labels like Kill Rock Stars, Merge, and Drag City may survive on their own. But what about Flameshovel, home to post-emo-ers Maritime? How about Robcore, home to Rob Crow’s 5,031 side projects? What will they do? Perhaps Southern Records, the European label of independent choice that has been helping small time record labels (notably Dischord) with distribution in Europe, could pick up key missing pieces. At this point, it’s too soon to tell… but hopefully, something will come to fruition for these tiny labels.