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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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Interviews

Interview with Vince DiFiore of Cake

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It would be an understatement to say that 2011 is going pretty well for Cake: the sardonic rock band’s newest album, Showroom of Compassion, debuted at #1 on the Billboard charts, and they’re about to embark on a string of sold out shows (of which the 9:30 Club will host three). We got the chance to chat with trumpet/keys player Vince DiFiore about Showroom, the band’s solar powered studio, and where the band’s going next.

JULI THANKI: You’ve been with Cake since the beginning. How has Cake evolved in the past 20 years?

VINCE DIFIORE: The electric guitar was bound to creep in and become stronger; it was so restrained on the first album and the second album, too. There was a very deliberate restraint that didn’t want to be restrained, because it’s an electric guitar. Given time, that sonic expression of the electric guitar is going to make its presence felt to a greater degree. I think it’s the nature of the beast and probably something that had to happen.

I became the default keyboard player in the band starting with “The Distance” synthesizer line. When it dawned on me and everyone else in the band that I was playing keys, we started adding a lot of keyboards in the studio because we had somebody to play them. It was like we added a keyboard player. The first album has instrumental organ parts that we didn’t really play when we played those songs live.

The third part of that answer would be the background vocals. We have always had harmony vocals but I think we really stepped it up as other band members have been in the band longer. Once you find your voice in the band, maybe even through your instrument or how you identify yourself in the band, then the vocals come. There’s something singing that’s very personal, and you have to mean it. All five of us are singing onstage now. Victor [Damiani], our old bassist, never sang, and Gabriel [Nelson, the current bass player] sings. That’s been a huge difference.

THANKI: Aside from the B-side comp, this is your first record since Pressure Chief in 2004. Why was there such a long gap in between records?

DIFIORE: We toured on Pressure Chief for two and a half to three years, going all over the world touring, then resting for a while. It became a lot of business details with record labels and stuff. We made the decision to leave Columbia Records and started Upbeat Records and put out B-Sides and Rarities. We did a little bit more touring for that. Then we took about three years to make this last record. We did gigs here and there to keep being a band that plays and has a connection with an audience. We communicated with each other musically and through the website to get us all on the same page and have a similar worldview. We weren’t on a deadline; there wasn’t a record company saying “Your three years have passed. Where’s your next album?” It was up to us. We knew that if we were putting out an album we want it to be an album that we can really stand behind. So we took the time to do that.

THANKI: What else do you dig about having your own label? Is it mostly the freedom?

DIFIORE: It’s a lot more freedom. There’s a feeling of helplessness in anything if you don’t have control over the situation. It’s probably why couples fight so much and why there’s antagonism in business relationships, because you want to determine the outcome of something and say how much of your life is going to be committed to something and hope that the commitment turns out to be some sort of self-fulfillment also. When you’re living like that and you don’t have control, it makes you feel helpless. We’re experiencing the opposite of that now in terms of calling the shots. There’s a lot more administration that needs to happen, but we have a very good manager and a very good distributor. Everybody put their best foot forward and had all the pistons firing at the same time.

THANKI: I heard you guys have a solar powered recording studio. Tell me a little bit about the decision to go green in that aspect of the band’s career.

DIFIORE: We figured how much energy we would need to rehearse and record and then put thirteen solar panels up. Lo and behold, we did the entire album with solar energy. I think it changed the way we felt about being in the studio. It was a really good move. It assuages some of the guilt of being on the road and consuming energy and traveling about and using hotels and all that. Everybody is an energy consumer if you want to participate in society; that’s the way things seem to be running. That made us feel a little bit better about [the band’s] carbon footprint.

THANKI: Cake plays DC fairly often. I don’t know how much free time you have, but do you have a favorite thing about the city or a favorite part to visit?

DIFIORE: You know what’s remarkable? The amount of space there is. You’d think it would be a crowded place like New York City or Boston or Philadelphia. Those places are roomy, but when you’re out on the Mall, there’s so much space around you. There’s not much difference in the Mall when there’s no one on it and a weekend in the summer when everybody’s there. Things are still working out. I feel so safe at night. I love to go out on the Mall at night on a bike or walking; it’s so open and peaceful out there.

THANKI: You’ve got a couple co-writing credits on Showroom. How involved do you get in that process?

DIFIORE: John wrote the words for those songs. He came in with the words and melody; I got credit because I came up with a lot of parts for the arrangements. He was nice enough to give me credit on there, and I think I deserved it (laughs). I did write a lot of the music around the melody. You want something that’s interesting both melodically and rhythmically and that goes along with the song. A lot of the process is intuitive, just doing it, then stepping back and then doing it again until everything seems to work.

THANKI: Where do you see the band going from here?

DIFIORE: I liked how everybody worked together on the last album and how everybody felt confident about bringing what they liked about music into the band. That was really great. Nobody was shy about their contributions. We all played how we wanted to play, and there was a great chemistry working out. If we do that for the next record then no matter what we bring in, it’ll be something good. It might not be different [stylistically]. It will be a different experience certainly, but the precedent that The Beatles and The Police set for changing their sound on every album is pretty freaky, you know? (laughs)

I think our strength is writing songs within an album. The sound works out for us. It’s guitar-bass-drums-trumpet-keys-vocals, and that’s what we are. I don’t think we’re going to bring in any kind of robot to play synths or Xan’s going to turn into a classical guitarist or we’re going to start playing like U2. It’s going to be the same effort if we are so lucky to get together and make more music.

THANKI: As a big Louvin Brothers fan, I was so glad to see you guys touring with Charlie Louvin a few years ago. Whose idea was it to bring him onto the tour?

DIFIORE: That was John’s idea. I’m so glad that so many people were introduced to Charlie Louvin’s music; that’s a great thing. He was fun to be around. It was important for him to be funny. He always had some jokes. He was a very friendly guy. I actually visited him in his museum that he had near the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville. He just hung out there during the day; you could go in and see the Louvin Brothers’ stuff and talk to him and get photos with him. He was really a good person to be around. The Louvin Brothers were the Everly Brothers’ favorite band, which says a lot. They had those really sweet vocals and wrote incredible songs and harmonized really well together. It’s a beautiful thing when brothers are singing like that.

THANKI: Were you a fan of their music before touring with Charlie?

DIFIORE: I knew of the Louvin Brothers from when we were on the road; we had mix tapes and mix CDs in the van and John loved “The Great Atomic Power,” which I heard on the way to Portland once. I clearly remember going over the bridge over Lake Shasta and hearing that song. It’s a good memory. There’s a bunch of great Louvin Brothers songs, but there was about two or three that I knew before we toured with him. It was really special. What a great experience to have.

THANKI: We’re about out of time, but thanks so much for talking with me, Vince.

DIFIORE: Right on. I appreciate the interview. Have a great day, and we’re looking forward to being in Washington, DC again.

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Interviews

Blake Shelton: New Album, New Format, Newfound Focus

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On March 2nd, country superstar Blake Shelton released Hillbilly Bone, the first in a planned series of two 6-song releases dubbed “Six Paks.” The second, as-yet untitled Six Pak is tentatively scheduled for August.

The move is an apparent attempt by Warner Bros. to shake up the stale album release formula that has contributed to more than a decade of declining album sales. The two half-length collections–which Warner Bros. adamantly opposes referring to as EPs–will serve in place of a new Shelton full-length album, the most recent of which was released in 2008.

Last week I had the opportunity to chat with Shelton about what this new format means for him as an artist.

JIM MALEC: Will these so-called Six Paks be digital only, or will there also has a physical version available in stores?

BLAKE SHELTON: There’ll be a physical product in every normal retail store where you’d find music.

JM: From a business and career standpoint, what’s the reasoning behind this substantial shift in formats

SHELTON: Not only do I not really know, I don’t even care. (Laughing) That’s a record company dilemma. They’re the ones that came to me and told me about their idea and about what they’d like to try to do. They asked me if I’d be ok with it.

I came back with, “absolutely.” The more I thought about it, you know, I could see the advantages for me, and for my fans. This will make it easier to get music to my fans—and at a lower cost. Honestly–and I don’t want to speak for all artists in Nashville ‘cause I know there are some that it does make a huge difference with–almost 100 percent of my income comes from touring. So I’ve never once wondered or thought about how record companies make a profit, or how much they make off a 16-dollar album versus a nine-dollar album versus a six-dollar album. That’s never been something I’ve thought much about because that’s never something that’s been a big part of my world.

Obviously, I pay attention to how many records we sell. That’s always something I keep track of. And, of course, I keep track of what our singles do. Because those things support my touring.

JM: What would you say is more important to you, then, as far as your touring and your profile as an artist: Is it country radio supporting your singles, having new music available on a regular basis or albums sales?

SHELTON: A combination of all of that. When you release a new record, there’s a lot of publicity that comes along with that, which, in turn gets me on television a lot more. That, in turn, may make someone out there pick up the phone and go, “Hey man, I heard Blake sing his new song on television this morning and I wanna hear it [on radio].” It starts getting that ball rollin’. It all matters to my world, as far as touring goes. A big hit single out on radio may be the best thing of all.

But as far as how they make money on those things, I’d probably kill myself before I was satisfied with knowing how that all works.

JM: So let’s talk about it from an artistic standpoint, then. How do you approach choosing songs for a six-song album? And how is that different, or not different, than choosing songs for a “full length” album?

SHELTON: We were already workin’ on a record, and we were right in the middle of it when we decided that we were gonna do this thing. So we had more than six songs recorded already. So, what we decided to do was make the most rounded album we could make with six songs.

We said, let’s make it as good as we can, and the things we don’t use for the first one will be our starting point for the next one.

That’s what we did. And, obviously, I’ve always been a guy that has four or five ballads on each album. Well, clearly you can’t do that with only a six-song album. So “Hillbilly Bone” was set to be the first release, and we had another song recorded called “Kiss My Country Ass” that I knew needed to be on this first record because it fit so will with “Hillbilly Bone.” And the record kinda started becoming this little piece of attitude. It was an in-your-face, redneck anthem type of album.

We just decided to go down that road with this particular record. There’s only one ballad on the album, and one mid-tempo, and the rest of ‘em are all up-tempo, fun, party, drinkin’ songs. Which is new for me also, just to kinda go there. To completely go there with my music.

JM: Do you feel like this format for a record gives you more or less artistic freedom? In the future, do you envision each song being recorded as its own, almost one-off project, or will you approach the recording of a Six Pak more as a structured, themed project?

SHELTON: Definitely, each song is under the microscope way more than if you’re doing a 12 or 13 song album. You know this as well as I do—if you’re makin’ a 12 or 13 song album, you end up with two or three on there that probably not only you [the artist] aren’t that crazy about but also that nobody involved is really that crazy about. But you need those extras, you know?

You’re not gonna record anybody’s great songs as album filler. And you’re not gonna waste one of your great ones as album filler. And it’s not that “filler” means “bad songs,” it just means those songs aren’t difference makers.

When we’re doing a record like this, we can’t have one song on there that’s not great. Each song you cut has to have the possibility of being something great. Whether you’re even thinking about getting it played on the radio or not—just like the song I mentioned before, “Kiss My Country Ass.” We know good and well that’s not gonna be played on country radio. But we also know that there’s a lot of other avenues for somethin’ like that. The song will get a lot of attention.

So we had to think about it that way, as each song being really important. Because once they release this thing, they’re gonna go all kinds of directions with songs. There’s only one that goes to radio, so they have a lot of projects to do with the other five songs to get them heard as quickly as possible.

JM: I remember when Rhett [Akins] released “Kiss My Country Ass” as a single–I had the same thought even back then: “There’s no way!” I think I heard it on the radio once, and that surprised me–

SHELTON: –and it was bleeped out!

JM: It was! But on the subject of that song, I read a quote from you that said something to the effect of it represented the kind of artist you want to be. You said that you heard that song and realized it as the foundation for what you wanted to do in the future. Do you remember saying that, and if so, can you expound on that statement? I know you take a lot of pride in being Blake, so talk to me about what that song in particular means to you, personally and artistically.

SHELTON: Well, artistically it…man, here’s the thing: You can exist a long time in this industry by having hit singles. And this, what I’m about to talk about, has happened a lot. I’ve seen it happen to a lot of artists. I don’t want to be one of those artists that was “the guy that sang ‘Austin’,” and “the guy that sang ‘This Song’ or ‘That Song’.” I want people, when this is over, to go “Blake Shelton…” and then remember my songs. Not vice-versa. Not think of a song and then try to remember who sang it.

I guess what I’m sayin’ is that at some point here I came to the realization that I’ve gotta try to step out and become a person that people know what I stand for. I want them to have something they can cling on to, whether they hate me or love me for it. They’ve gotta know who I am. And I finally…well, you gotta figure that out for yourself, first. Then you’ve gotta find a way to get it to the fans. And then you just hope they buy into it.

For me, I just finally started realizin’ some things. I moved back to Oklahoma because I missed bein’ out in the middle of nowhere. I love my friends and my family. I love drivin’ back roads. I love drinkin’ beer. I love that type of thing. So, I guess that’s who I am at the end of the day. And I need to figure out how to connect that with my music.

I’m finally doin’ that.

JM: What is country music?

SHELTON: Country music to me is…oh man, that’s an excellent question.

It’s music that’s about real emotions and real things that real people go through. And real feelings that real people have. That’s the easy answer. To me, the bigger picture is that it’s music that has the ability to adapt. It’s always music that people—generations—take ownership of. They don’t want to let go of their decade, or their two decades. And I love that about it, that each generation has its own decade or so that they’ve staked their claim on. “Man, that was the good years of country music,” you know?

If you look at country music, when it was created and who it was created by, it’s so much different then that now. In so many ways. You’ll hear a lot of people in my parents’ generation bitchin’ about how country ain’t country no more—well, the music they were listenin’ to wasn’t country to their parents. It’ll always be that way, and that’s my favorite thing about country music—if you look at the history of it, from then ‘till now, there really aren’t any boundaries. Because it has its own way of stayin’ true.


This content originally appeared in the country music blog The 9513, which ceased publication in 2011. It was added to American Noise in 2018. 

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Interviews

Honeyhoney on Hiatus: Revisit our 2008 Interview with Suzanne Santo

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According to lead singer, fiddler and banjoist Suzanne Santo, Honeyhoney isn’t country. But on the Venice CA duo’s debut album First Rodeo, the powerful vocalist and her musical partner Ben Jaffe have crafted a style that is rootsy and rhythmic, one which sounds deeply and naturally connected to the genre’s traditions. Lyrically, the record is stark and raw, marked by moving songs of love, homecoming, fear and anger. That First Rodeo occupies this particular musical space is not surprising given Santo’s influences.

“I love bluegrass, Appalachian type stuff,” she explains. “I listen to a lot of Earl Scruggs and Pete Williams, Johnny Cash. Gillian Welch.”

But Santo has eclectic taste, also citing Tupac and Master P as influences. And while you won’t find anything resembling 90s gangsta rap on the record, it does brush up against jazz, blues, and even ska (on the delightfully frantic “Give Yourself To Me”).

“We weave in and out, like we’re drunk-driving through music genres,” Santo says. “Let’s go a little more rock this time, or let’s go a little more cowpunk. And I like to believe that people will take to our music because of that.”

Finding Her Way, The Hard Way

Growing up in a small town in Ohio, Santo spent her early teens busing tables at her grandparents’ Italian restaurant and dreaming of something different. At age 14, she landed a few small-time modeling gigs, which opened the door to bigger gigs in Chicago and Tokyo. Two years later she was fully immersed in the modeling world and moved to New York City, where she attended a private performing arts school. From a family of modest means, Santo financed her education with the earnings from her photoshoots.

“Pretty much anything I made would go to the school,” she says.

At first, her parents made frequent trips into the city to visit and attend to her business affairs. But the strain of so much travel wore on them. Santo was emancipated when she was 17. She was living on her own and fending for herself. And her modeling work was drying up.

“It was a really hard time,” she says. “My body started to change and I wasn’t landing as many jobs. I had never had to diet before. I had never had to cut back anything that I was eating. When my body started changing and I was getting curvy, I wasn’t working as much and I needed to pay my rent. And the stress it would put on me would be really scary.”

So she tended bar and waited tables at a barbecue joint. She worked as a nanny and a building manager. She struggled to keep things together, and she started mapping out a new path for her future.

“We’re Definitely Not Named After the Abba Song”

While in New York Santo started acting, and her acting aspirations eventually led her to Los Angeles. She even scored a few small roles in shows like Law & Order and Without a Trace. But she was also writing music and performing at open mics around town, which is where she caught the attention of a music engineer known as “The Double” who had worked with Jaffe – a New England native and Gershwin-bred classical music fan who was previously the guitarist for Sonya Kitchell – on a solo project credited as Black Tie Society. The Double introduced the two, and it didn’t take long for a new partnership to bloom.

“We started singing each other’s songs and mushing ‘em together and then we started writing together,” Santo says. By the time the two new collaborators had finished their second song (“Come on Home,” which appears on First Rodeo), they realized that something special was brewing.

“After we wrote that song we thought, wow, this is great. Let’s keep doing this.”

Santo and Jaffe officially joined forces not long after under the moniker Zanzabar Lewis, a title coined from Suzanne’s childhood nickname. After signing with Kiefer Sutherland’s Ironworks Records, the duo wanted to find a name that more accurately reflected the tone of their music.

“We choose Honeyhoney because it’s kinda southern and sassy,” Santo explains. “We’re definitely not named after the Abba song.”

“I Can Smack His Ass Around”

“We’re married without the candy,” Santo says of her relationship with Jaffe, not really joking. “Sometimes Ben and I forget to hang out because we’re so busy. But he’s hilarious. I freakin’ love that kid. But no nookie.”

“Besides,” she says, “I’m about six months older, so that means I can smack his ass around.”

Their personal relationship may be platonic, but First Rodeo is a sexy and intimate record. Jaffe’s churning guitar rhythms complement Santo’s sometimes soaring, sometimes searing vocals. The first single from the project, “Little Toy Gun,” is smoky and dangerous – a modern gunslinger of a track. On “Sugarcane,” the subtle moan of a steel guitar underscores unforgiving lyrics: “You say you’re fine and sigh, sigh, sigh/So when I fuck around, don’t ask me why.”

Like Honeyhoney itself, First Rodeo is hard to classify. It simmers then boils; it whispers then howls. Throughout, Santo delivers stunning performances that will make you wonder why the hell you haven’t heard of her yet.

“When we signed our deal, Ben was teaching music at a store in Redondo Beach, and I was doing all these different day jobs,” she explains. “Before we signed it was really hard to keep our jobs and continue to be busy with music and have time to write and practice. And when we finally signed and got our advances, we were able to live off of music as a job, which still blows my mind. I’m like, holy shit, I don’t have to sell barbecue anymore. I don’t have to watch babies to pay my bills. When you work in the service industry or you’re a teacher it’s consumes a lot of your time and at the end of the day you’re really tired and exhausted and it’s harder to be creative. I feel like we have more room now to be creative.”


This content was originally published in the country music blog The 9513 on November 7, 2008.

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