Sunday, September 26, 2010
A Sunday Conversatin with Green Monkey Records
Don't get me wrong. It's not that I'm jaded, but having been doing this Ripple thing for the better part of three years, I've heard a lot of music come through the Ripple doors. And while a good chunk of that music's been pretty good, not much of it has been surprising. Most of it just fits nicely into the preconceived notions of genre and category. That was until the Green Monkey Anthology came through my door. To put it bluntly, I expected one thing and got another thing entirely.
And what I got was good. Very good. Garage, psych, powerpop. Keen original post punk pop the likes of which went right to my happy zone.
With that, it was only a matter of time before we had to get Tom Dyer, the main monkey, to stop by the Ripple office, plop on down on the red leather couch and spill the beans on all things green and monkey.
You detail the entire history of Green Monkey Records in the insert of your excellent CD anthology, but for our readers, let's refresh. How did you get started running an independent record label?
Well, traditionally there are two main ways people start labels. Either as business to make some dough off artists or as artists to get their skwak out. Occasionally there is something in between. For me it was definitely case #2. I was a late bloomer. Though always a music lover and a singer of sorts, I didn’t start playing guitar until I was 25. Had an art/punk band in Seattle around 1980 that was pretty cool in a tortured sort of way that really didn’t get too far – couple demos –but enough to convince me I needed recording gear. Did a bunch of one-man-band (me) recording and started recording my friends’ bands. By ’83 I had enough stuff of my own and other peoples’ that wasn’t getting put out anywhere I decided to start putting it out. Green Monkey was born and the next level of personal entertainment was up and running.
What motivated you? Did you tap into a particular local scene or were you aiming to capture a sound?
We were mostly limited to the sound we could get by the kind of gear that we used and the dinky studio space I had. That said, there was and is now an esthetic to my work. I have always had a greater leaning toward dissonance than your average American. When we were kids my brother bough Beatles and I bought Stones. When I was 17-18 it was all about Trout Mask Replica (drove my mom nuts). Later I was more interested in Ornette and Coltrane than Miles (Miles is great!), way more interested in Harry Partch and Stockhausen than Beethoven (z-z-z-z) and at one point I definitely wanted John Lee Hooker to be my personal savior. He was a guitar genius and had an even cooler voice than Johnny Cash.
Back in the 80’s when I had a little 8-track studio, I mostly got my clients word-of-mouth. Some of them like The Hitmen or the Fallouts became GMR artists for a while. Some folks I sought out like the Green Pajamas (after I bought their cassette) or The Life (got told about ‘em). Some would send me stuff like Glass Penguins that I liked and we would try to get something done on the cheap. I think the music we put out at that point was fairly inconsistent stylistically. It was just whatever was around that I liked.
I will say that over time there is a certain sound to my work that moves beyond the gear. It has something to do with intent and will.
Which was your first release?
GM001 Local Product (various artists) and GM002 Tom Dyer – Truth or Consequences were released simultaneously in ‘83, in a no doubt calculated manner to seem more important than we actually were. Both were totally recorded on Tascam 2340 4 track reel to reel with a little 6 channel Tapco board, a spring reverb, an analog delay and crappy mikes. We were totally living. We could overdub for crissakes! Kids in the Garage Band world have no way to understand how totally fucking cool that was to be able to do at that point. Put ‘em out on cassette – 150 copies each – off to the big time.
Who's been your biggest selling artist to date?
The Green Pajamas by a mile. Book of Hours by the PJs is the top seller at around 5 thousand copies worldwide. It was released in the US, Germany, Greece and Australia – each version with different tracks. I just reissued it on CD after 24 years with all the tracks from every version, plus an unreleased track. Made me very happy. Still work with Jeff Kelly (PJ #1). I think he is doing brilliant stuff at the present.
There's so much to learn about running a label, share with us some of the lessons you've learned along the way.
Well, lesson one is it was always hard to get paid and still is. I became pretty conscious of cash flow back when as it really became difficult to keep funding the next project. I think it is a lot easier to get your music out to an audience in the internet age, but don’t kid yourself – it’s still work. As Andy Warhol said, it’s all about work. I like to work. I like to do things that I think have artistic merit. I think the trick is to know what you want to do and not get too sidetracked by all the silly extra stuff that will suck up all your time.
What's been your label's high point? Low point?
Two high points, one low point. First hight point, 1987 when we did the Green Pajamas - Book of Hours and The Life - Alone. It felt like we were in the verge of something in regards to commercial success. Wasn’t able to get it to go to the next step, which led to the low point, ’91 or so. It had become a chore. At that point I had put so much time and energy into it with diminishing returns, I was a dad, needed to back off, make a living and take care of life. Had to let it go.
Second highlight is now. I am at a place in my life I can do this at a level that I find satisfying. I am putting out my music and other peoples’ music I like. I don’t really care if somebody thinks it is crap or not, it is just what I am doing and I will let it get to whatever level it can get to.
What's inspired you to jump back into the ring and relaunch the label?
In the period after the initial output, I went back to school, got my bachelors, masters and doctorate while working full-time and raising kids. I never stopped recording (thus Songs From Academia, Vols. 1 & 2), but it was a lot smaller part of my life. Have my doctorate, have a job, kids are out of the house. Time to rock. Beside my gig as president of a small college, this is mostly what I do with my time nowadays.
The music industry has changed significantly since the pre-grunge days? What changes have you seen and how are you approaching dealing with this changes?
Obviously the biggest change is the internet. It used to be that record companies were the filter to decide what was “good music” – people that were too crummy couldn’t make records. That started changing with the whole DIY thing in the 80’s – then the internet blew it up. Record labels don’t matter anymore. Anybody can get their music in front of the world. The filters used to be at the front – can you get stuff released – now they are at the end – how do you differentiate yourself from the 2 million crummy bands on MySpace. It is about reviews, PR, social networking and as always playing live, which by the way, I rarely do.
What changes do you see ahead for the music industry?
Well, the death of plastic seems pretty inevitable. There is still a shrinking market for CDs and vinyl, but your average person is pretty happy with their iPod and that seems irreversible.
On a more musical note, I see no more significant changes in popular music. Ever.
In the 20th century music changed as the technology to make it changed. First, there was the ability to record music. Changed everything, Then the ability to overdub made it possible to record music you could not perform live. Then the electric guitar changed everything again, making sounds that were previously impossible to make. Analog synthesis created the last batch of new timbres that popular music would require. Digital sampling was the final piece, as the hip hop guys brought John Cage’s notion that all sounds have musical validity to the mainstream.
In the past technological change in making sounds drove new music. I do not think there are any significant departures left on the kind of sounds that can be made. We can make them all.
I think what you have going forward is simply differing combinations of styles – personalization. Jazz is a great example. It runs a progressive course from New Orleans Jazz in the early century and by the end of the 60’s it has hit avant garde squawking and fusion. Sweet to scratchy – all been done. Everybody in jazz now works somewhere within that range. No place new left to go.
By the way, I hope I am completely wrong about this.
What's the biggest challenge facing you today as an independent label?
Just finding time to get things done. I’m pretty much a 1 ½ person operation. If I had greater ambitions there would be larger challenges, but at this point I am pretty happy to put things out at small but consistent level and let thing go where they go.
Are you working now primarily with your old catalog of artists? Will you be looking for new artists?
My plan is to do a few things.
First, put out my own TD music. I’ve mostly got the old stuff out that I want out, so from here on it will be pretty much new. Second, is to re-release old catalog, just cuz I think it is great stuff that should be heard. Third is to put out new music from some old GMR folks, mostly Jeff Kelly/Green Pajamas, but we’ll see. Fourth is to put out completely new stuff by people that I’ve never done anything with. I’ve got a new band, Sigourney Reverb, that I like and may do some stuff with.
As time goes on I expect I will shift out of old stuff entirely. It will be all done. Probably take a few years though.
Are you a club rat, constantly searching live venues for cool acts?
Nope. Never was, always was a record guy. If I go out and see a band, it is very deliberate; I know about them from hearing something and check it out.
What are you looking for now?
The ecstatic experience. Music that makes me feel. Someone that can replace John Lee Hooker as my personal savior.
What would you like to see happen for the future of the music industry and your label in particular?
Well, I am of course perfectly fine with becoming an international superstar and having Jeff Kelly be bigger than Lady Gaga.
As for the industry, I think the decentralization of popular music that is ongoing is an unstoppable trend. I think digital music is here to stay, but I think due to increase storage crappy MP3s will go away.
Any final words for our waveriders?
Buy all our stuff. It’s better than everybody else’s.