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Exclusive Interview with Greg Werckman of Ipecac Recordings

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If you thought the major labels were having a hard time keeping their people-pleasing pop stars afloat in today’s tumultuous music scene, then you’d probably assume that the smaller labels were definitely going under. Not true, especially in the case of Ipecac Recordings—a label whose affinity for eclectic music balks against the overtly manufactured trend of the music industry.

Co-owners Mike Patton (former frontman of Faith No More, current frontman of a million other things) and Greg Werckman (former label manager for Alternative Tentacles, and Patton’s manager) have managed to succeed by putting their artists and their creative integrity above the cloned slickness of the industry and turn out a label that gives the little guys a chance. Werckman was kind enough to chat with American Noise about everything from the current challenges in today’s music scene, to how the Melvins are still a great and relevant rock band, and why they probably won’t accept your demo of your cat playing the piano.

AMERICAN NOISE: When you and Mike started Ipecac in 1999, did you imagine that you’d still be running the label 12 years down the line?

GREG WERCKMAN: Well, no. To be honest, we didn’t even think it was going to be a real label when we started it. We just thought it could be a place where Mike could put out a lot of his stranger stuff. But then over the first couple of months, when we were putting it together and contacting distributers to sell the stuff, it kind of evolved into a real label. So, I think to some degree we expected to be putting out Mike’s records but we didn’t expect it to be a real record label.

How has Ipecac had to adapt to stay afloat during the changes in the music industry?

We’re really lucky because we’ve got an advantage that a lot of other small labels don’t have. We’ve got Mike Patton and we’ve got The Melvins. Right there, just between those two, they could put out enough records to sustain a record label. The industry has gotten a lot tougher—it’s getting impossible to develop new bands because nobody wants to pay money for anything like that. If it’s a band they’ve never heard of before, they expect to just digitally download stuff for free. So, that part of being a record label has changed to the point where it doesn’t really exist anymore. But for us, we’ve been able to adapt because we have a couple of artists that have a really strong, firm, loyal fan-base, that no matter what happens in the industry as a whole, those fans are still here for us. We’re really, really fortunate.

Have you found that you’ve had to scale back on any releases?

Oh yeah. We’ve had to scale back on everything. It’s crazy. It’s the worst part. Mike and I love discovering new bands and getting turned on to new bands and then try and turn other people onto them, and we just can’t do that as much anymore. Even three years ago, I would say, even just putting the Ipecac logo on a record, we could definitely sell at least 5,000 copies of anything, no matter what it was, just based on a fan-base that says, “Oh yeah, I’ll give it a try.”

These days, there are no guarantees. You might sell 1,000 copies. It’s way different. We’ve scaled back. We make a lot fewer CDs. We spend a lot less money on recording and getting records made. As far as giving advances, our advances are getting smaller and smaller. It’s tough but we’re still here. I’m not going to whine too much.

For most part of the decade, there’s almost been a backlash against many record labels and recording contracts. In your opinion, where do you think the bigger labels went wrong?

I always think, and it’s not just the bigger labels but the independent labels too, but any label that looks at it as solely commerce and not art, eventually it caught up with them. When you have a band sign a contract for seven records, you’re saying you own that band, and that’s not the best way to get the creative juices flowing, you know the pressure that it has to work. You know when you pay your band a huge advance, say a million dollars, if the record does well but not well enough to recoup that million dollars, then it’s looked at as a failure. Because in the books, in the commerce world, it didn’t match up with the money you put into it.

Instead, if you look at it artistically, if you’ve made a really great record that people loved, maybe not a million people loved it but 100,000 people loved it, there’s great value in that. I think that most labels that got themselves into trouble were the ones that were spending money thinking that the money was going to lead to the success and feed the art, as opposed to the fact that good art can eventually feed the commerce.

Also, I think there are a lot of bad managers in the world, unfortunately, and the only thing worse than bad labels are bad artist managers. They think the goal is to just get as much money as you can out of any record label. And that shouldn’t be the goal. The goal should be to create the best art you can. So these managers made these big demands and with these big demands came this big pressure and then everything looks like a big failure because you didn’t meet those demands. I think if those managers instead looked for the right environment, the right people, the right place and the right surroundings, they would be in the right situation to help germinate their artist. They can develop and become successful in that way and I think that’s the smart way to do it.

What would you say are Ipecac’s top sources of revenue?

Oh God, I don’t know. We don’t really have sources of revenue besides record sales. We hardly take any of the merchandise sales, the bands get that stuff. I guess, it’s still CDs but digital is getting really close to matching CD sales. The bands that tour sell a lot of CDs. It’s really kind of funny because a lot of people say “Oh the CD is dead,” but it’s not. When our bands play live, they sell a lot of CDs at the shows. Sure, we don’t sell as many in record stores as bands do on the road, but there is obviously still somewhat of a demand for them. People say, “Oh, we’re going to stop making CDs,” but I think you’d be idiotic to do that.

I still buy them. I like to have the physical copy of it.

Yeah. And again, what has changed is that The Melvins can still sell physical CDs and Patton still sells CDs, but when we put out a band that nobody knows or very few people know…for example we have this really cool French electronic duo called Gangpol and Mit that we’re going to be putting out and people will probably not buy those CDs. I bet you the downloads will be higher. And that’s for a couple reasons: One, when it’s something people don’t know, they want to download a track or two to see if they like it and hopefully then they will buy the CD. And two, it just seems that people are not willing to spend the money for things they don’t know for sure. And that’s a sign of the times. Money is tighter and people are taking less risks with their money.

How important is the use of social media tools such as Facebook, Twitter and artists’ blogs to the music industry today?

Sadly, I guess it’s really important. And I say sadly because there is such a fine line between what is real and what’s not real online. You know that anybody can go on anybody’s Wikipedia page and change anything they want. Anyone can pretend to be anybody they want on Facebook. For years someone claiming to be Mike Patton ran a MySpace page. And it became huge. There were hundreds of thousands of people who went there and we, for a long time, sat back and laughed. But it got so big that we were like, you know maybe we should take this over because this isn’t really Mike Patton. But they have all these followers… it’s just all so strange that part of it. I remember Shawn (Vezinaw), who runs our Los Angeles office saying, “I need Mike to take pictures when he’s on the road with his phone, they don’t need to be good, just anything so I can put them on Facebook.” And Mike and I both thought that was kind of goofy. But Mike started doing it. He’d take a picture of a meal he had and Sean would put it up there and there would be hundreds of responses to it. It’s seems odd but you got to do it.

For a lot of people like Mike and The Melvins, and other people I work with, they didn’t get into this for fame. They actually enjoy music. So you don’t want people showing up at your house, or knowing about your kids, or what kind of car you drive or if you’re married or who you’re dating or any of that stuff. That’s such an odd thing to have to deal with or worry about. So, part of that starts crossing the line. I mean, we want to keep our fans happy. Us, more than a lot of people, we’ve got some of these crazy, die-hard fans you know, that get the tattoos and get everything we put out and go to all the shows, so we want to keep them happy. But at a certain point it’s like, OK, is part of keeping them happy having them know who I’m sleeping with tonight?

There’s definitely a fine line there. It’s interesting to the fans but still largely irrelevant from the real point, which is the music.

Yeah. And I mean, the fans are right for the most part. You know you’re supposed to say the customer is always right? So the fan is right. But there are times where they aren’t. I remember the whole Napster thing. All these fans just lashed out at Metallica. All Metallica was doing was protecting their heart. Sure, they’re really, really rich. They are billionaires. But that just doesn’t mean that they should be forced to give away their art. I actually felt bad for Metallica which is odd, for taking all the grief that all of us other artists and artist-friendly people were thinking about. I mean, go Metallica, speak up! You know, it was a scary time and if you spoke up and said “No, Napster is bad”, there would be fan backlash. But the truth of the matter is all it was about was artists wanting to control their art and make money off of their art so they can continue doing it. You don’t expect to go into a bookstore and think, “Oh I’m just going to take this book” (laughs). You know, believe it or not, when you buy records and you buy books and you buy movie tickets, it enables artists to continue creating the art. And people were so quick to overlook that part of it. It was just, “Oh those big evil millionaires Metallica.”

How do you decide what bands are Ipecac material – is it more gut-instinct? Have you ever signed a band that neither you or Mike would necessarily listen to but you know others would appreciate?

No, we have to agree on everything. When we started we were like, look let’s at least have the two of us agree but luckily what we look for is something unique. There are a lot of good bands that we’ve turned down that we’ve even liked musically but it was like, you know they are really good but we already have the Melvins and this band is kind of doing what the Melvins do, or there already was a Mr. Bungle, so we don’t need to put out ten bands that are Mr. Bungle clones. Everything we put out, to our ears, is unique and we think we are a platform for things that maybe don’t fit in other places and haven’t been heard before. That’s kind of our angle, and our hook, if it were. I mean people say “What’s your sound?” And we don’t have a sound. We’ve put out comedy records, country records, hip hop records, rock records, electronic—we’re all over the place. But we have an aesthetic and that aesthetic is unique art. We are purveyors of unique art.

With that in mind, do you get a lot of shitty demos of people just farting into the microphone and airplane noises and what not?

Oddly enough, we get it both ways. We get the really, you know, “Oh I’m going to be as arty as I can be and this is the sound of me and my cat playing the piano,” and then we get the exact opposite. Today I got an email from someone saying they’d like to send me a demo of a very exciting artist who is in the Will Smith mode of hip hop, and it’s just like wow—why would they even take the time to type our email address and send it to us? There’s obviously nothing DJ Jazzy Jeff about Ipecac. But the other thing is, and this is the reason I hate the American Idol stuff of the world, who am I to judge?

All we do is we judge it based on Mike and Greg and what we like and what we think fits in with Ipecac. And if we turn things down, it’s not because we think it’s terrible. Once again, music is an art form and art is in the eye, or in this case the ear, of the beholder. You know you go to an art gallery and you look at a painting and one person might say, “Whoa, what the hell? Did someone throw up on that piece of paper?” and another person might say “Oh my God, the beauty of it reminds me of my mom who passed away, she loved the color beige.” It can affect people in different ways. Sure we have our favorites but we’re in this as looking at it as music is a form of art—without sounding too pretentious.

With many of Mike’s fans gravitating more towards the music he is involved with, what are some Ipecac artists that are unfortunately overlooked?

I think every artist we work with is overlooked (laughs). You know, I still think, as popular as The Melvins are, that they are just ridiculously overlooked. I don’t think there’s a better hard rock band going and that includes the huge bands that play arenas like Metallica or whatever. The Melvins are rock and roll. They have done what they have done since they formed whatever 30 years ago, they continue doing it and they’re as relevant and as strong as they’ve ever been. And a lot of people still lump them into things. Oh, they’re a grunge band, or they are a punk band, or they are a noise band. And they are none of those things and all of those things put into one. They are just a great rock band.

Over the years we’ve put out a lot of things that have been really overlooked. We just put out a band called Mini Mansions. They’re really cool—they’re a bit art-rockish, but they’re rock and its intelligent rock. I definitely don’t think they get enough credit. We did a couple of records by this Icelandic singer songwriter called Mugison, and Mike and I, personally, were like “Oh my God, he is the greatest. He is the second coming of Beck.” He has this sense of humor, but with this beautiful folk music meets rock music meets pop music. But he’s from Iceland. We got a few writers into it but people would just not buy his CDs.

That part is frustrating, because you really think, “Aw man, this is something cool, people should at least try it.” But they don’t. And there’s nothing you can do about it. All we can do is try to do our best and hopefully put out some things that can connect. Look, the main thing is, I don’t expect that there is anyone alive, or dead, that likes everything we’ve put out. Because we are all over the place. The goal is not to be the most popular record label in the world and the goal is to not to have every release please every person. The goal is, hopefully, to put out some interesting cool stuff that some interesting cool people might be able to relate to.

What is the hardest thing about running your own label?

(Laughs) Well, the hardest thing right now is selling CDs. It’s not hard work, though. I get to work with music, which my whole life is what I’ve loved, so I don’t complain much. I just don’t like being part of the music industry. The industry itself is full of a lot of people that I think are pretty slimy and pretty scummy and when I see things like the Grammy Awards or Billboard and I see what’s at the top of the charts, and what’s selling, and what’s been shoved down people’s throats, or I turn on the radio and try and find something interesting and I can’t, it makes me go “Ugh, this is what I’m in?”

Because I don’t really feel connected to that part of it. So, I guess that’s the hardest part…feeling not connected to a part of an industry that I’m supposed to be part of.

I’ve just got into (“horror jazz” band) Bohren & Der Club of Gore and heard there’s an upcoming album that’s being released in Europe. Is Ipecac going to be putting that out stateside?

That’s a great example. We would never rank our babies, but Bohren, for Mike and I, is literally one of the bands we fell in love with. And we let bands have their space, we don’t sign bands to contracts so it doesn’t automatically mean we’re putting out the next release. We do record by record and these are some young German guys that we don’t talk to that often, and unfortunately sometimes it backfires. They might make a record and they don’t tell us and then they have it all set up to come out in Europe and we’re like, oh wait, what are you doing in North America? So we’re kind of scrambling on that one, but we will be putting it out. It’s not a full-length record. I wouldn’t call it an EP though because it’s over 30 minutes of music but it’s only three pieces. Mike is on one of the three tracks too (“Warlock”).

The point of that is that we are so hands off that there are times, that if we were in closer communication with Bohren, or if they had let us know earlier, we could have coordinated so that the record came out at the same time here but really the bands are the big part of the label. They are the employees as well, so we give them space to do what they want with their music and their art and we leave it to them to let us know when they’ve got something new and if it fits, we do it.

Are there any upcoming artists or releases that you are excited about?

Well, that’s a loaded question because I’m excited about everything we put out. I think the last couple of records we put out, a lot of them got overlooked a bit. I’m hoping people still discover the Mini Mansions record, and Alain Johannes’ record Spark, and Martina Topley Bird. We’ve got a really cool record from her (Some Place Simple). And then we’ve got Gangpol and Mit with their crazy video game electronic music (The 1000 Softcore Tourist People Club) that Mike and I have both been into since Mike ran into them in France on a tour or something. So we’re hoping electronic people are into it. It’s really fun, cool music.

And a dear friend of ours, Daniel Luppi, an Italian composer, did a soundtrack for a Spanish movie called Malos Habitos and we’re putting the soundtrack for that out. Once again it will be a limited audience, but Luppi is one of these guys that is extremely talented. He’s part of the Mondo Cane family. And of course any Melvins release is something to be excited about. We’ve got this really great live record Sugar Daddy Live that’s like a retrospective of their whole career, from all their different records. It’s a really, really great live record. And then lots of other things we are working on.

What are the projects that Mike is putting out this year?

I wouldn’t say he’s putting them out this year—it’s hard to pin down exact release dates. But he’s working on a lot of different things. He did the score for the Italian film The Solitude of Prime Numbers so we’re going to be putting out that soundtrack. A couple of shows he’s done over the years we’ve taped: there’s a Fantômas New Year’s show that we’re working on that’s going to be this really cool, really funny live DVD that we’ll be putting out. He’s in the early stages of working on some new Tomahawk music and some new Fantômas music, more Mondo Cane—he’s literally working on six or seven records right now. He’s also got this project (that we’re not putting out) called Nevermen, that’s coming out on Lex Records. It’s with Tunde from TV on the Radio and Dose One from the Anticon world. It’s just going to be three vocalists. It’s just a weird, kind of cool record. He’s also signed up to reprise his role in the Darkness II video game. He’s really busy. He’s got too much going on.

So I guess touring with Faith No More cut into a lot of his projects…

Yeah, it did cut into a lot. It slowed a lot of it down. But it was a really cool thing and he was really happy he did and had a lot of fun doing it. And the fans were really into it, too. It was a good thing.

As a manager and a friend, do you ever just have to force him to go sit on a beach for a week somewhere?

Well, Mike doesn’t sit on beaches (laughs). He doesn’t vacation and he doesn’t really relax. I don’t even attempt to get him to relax. He’s always working and he always wants work and that’s great. That’s the way it should be, he’s still young and there are so many opportunities still and he’s into challenging himself. And that’s the best thing about Mike that a lot of artists don’t do. I don’t understand how they can do the same thing over and over. It just seems like it would bore you to death. And maybe that’s what the fans want, you know—make the same record over and over and stick with one band and keep doing that.

But Mike’s a human being and gets bored easily, and he wants to keep working. So, my toughest thing is just helping him focused. Line up the right project and find the time and say, “You can do this, and then you can do a little touring here, and then you can come back and finish this project.”

But you know, we are artist friendly. So I’d never put a deadline like, “Mike we need a Tomahawk record by May, you have to do this.” That’s just not the way we are, and we don’t expect that from our bands. When stuff happens, it happens and it usually turns out better because of that. Because there is no pressure to make something by a certain date, or something that sounds a certain way.

Last year Kid Koala noted how Lovage is coming along—any word on that?

You’d have to talk to Dan the Automator about that one. There’s been a couple of projects that Mike has done with Dan, like Crudo and Lovage, that we would love to get going but Mike can only drive the projects that he drives. And he does not drive either of those projects. As a matter of fact, the Lovage CD is even out of print. People can’t even find it anymore and we’ve been begging them to let us put it out and re-issue it. No movement on that. So, you know you can only do things to a certain point.

Not surprising. I had to buy it on eBay.

You did? Oh man, that’s so bad. A friend of Mike’s just called him up and was like, “I’ve heard about this thing called Lovage and I went to the record store and I can’t find it.” And Mike’s like, ”I’m sorry. I don’t even have a copy to send to you.” It’s sad because, though I’m not a big Crudo fan, Lovage I love. It had a special place unlike anything else, and a lot more could be done with it.

Where do you want Ipecac to be in another 12 years? Are you pretty comfortable with the status quo?

Yeah. Yeah I am. I guess it would be nice to keep putting out records. I don’t know if it’ll be around in 12 more years because, at a certain point, if we’re only going to be putting out Melvins and Patton records, that’s not very fun. But we’ll find a niche. We’ll hopefully still be around. I hope I never have to get a real job. I can’t imagine that. That’s what it’s like in the music business, it’s kind of play. It’s kind of pretend and to be able to make a living doing it is…well, we’re really, really lucky.

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