From In Love With These Times.
there have been many superfine record labels over the years. stax, tamla motown, rockney, people unite, postcard, ron johnson, subway organisation, earache and sarah spring immediately to mind (indeed, they appear to be a top ten of sorts). but right about now can there be a label which can oust matinee recordings of santa barbara, ca from pre-eminence ? in the words of professor griff, “not this day and time, my brother”. anyway, the man to blame for the formidable back catalogue is mr. james tassos. we asked him some stuff. he replied. we call the result an “interview”.
1. Are you happy to be led by the bands (and your tastes) developing the label “organically” or would you still feel able to put your foot down if a band discovered a particularly horrible new direction (Perhaps you have already!)? Presumably there are enough people out there now regarding the label as a “badge of quality” that you have to be even more careful with the release policy than when you started the Matinée empire?
This has not proven to be a big problem yet, although I have turned down songs by bands on the label maybe five or six times so far. I was surprised (but delighted) to learn awhile back that I instill fear in some bands on the label who apparently are nervous waiting to hear my response to new songs. Mostly I think bands know what I like, but for the record I am generally opposed to long wanky guitar solos, bleepy electronic garbage, unnecessarily long or repetitive songs, and uncredited samples. Note to bands sending demos: the same rules apply to you. We are lucky to have a number of very loyal fans of the label who buy nearly everything released. Of course this could change at any time if I ever put the name behind just one release that people didn’t like, so quality control is obviously paramount to the longevity of the label.
2. And as the label continues to develop, can you see a time where you would consider getting more staff in, etc – or do you think that’s when labels reach the size where they start to lose that quality control?
I would love to have help with the mailorder part of the business but I enjoy making decisions on the catalog, corresponding with bands and designing artwork and would find it hard to delegate any of these tasks. I’m a Virgo so I tend to adhere to the “do it yourself if you want to done right” philosophy and it seems to have worked so far.
3. What was behind the move out to the West coast? How are you enjoying things in Santa Barbara?
The move here was spurred by a great job offer for my wife Mary, and we jumped at the chance for a bit of adventure moving across the country because I work on a consulting basis so can work from nearly anywhere. We lived in DC for almost ten years so the change is nice and we love it here. There is no real indie scene in Santa Barbara, but we are between Los Angeles and San Francisco so if I ever need a dose of a scene I can drive a few hours away or fly to London. Santa Barbara is a pretty groovy place: nobody seems to have a job here, and everybody is good looking and happy. Needless to say, we fit right in. Besides serving as home to loads of famous people who can’t stand Los Angeles, it also apparently holds the distinction as the U.S. city with the highest number of restaurants per capita so if you visit us you will eat well.
4. I get the impression you discover a lot of bands more by word of mouth, but do you find yourself besieged by demo tapes, etc now? Do you even have time to listen to them?
I receive a lot of demos, and I listen to everything I receive but it is a rare day when I like something enough to sign a band. The latest two bands to join the label – The Young Tradition and Pale Sunday – both approached me with demos, so it is certainly not out of the question. The problem with many of the demos I receive is that they appear to come from bands who have no idea what Matinée is about and in some cases have obviously never heard anything we released. I put all the demos in a box and about once a month I sit down for a listen. I try to time the listening sessions to coincide with people visiting Santa Barbara – last year we did demo jukebox juries with Gregory Webster, Jenny and Leonard of Bella Vista, Mark and Lupe of Pipas, and The Lucksmiths. So if you sent a demo last year and you have not yet released a record on Matinée it’s most certainly the fault of one of these critics.
5. You obviously take care with art and design. Quite a few of the sleeves are photographed / designed by you personally – a lot of them seem to have a “Matinée” theme of sorts – although equally, some obviously come from the bands. Is the sleeve art simply a matter of how the bands want to present themselves and you step in by default – or would you ever veto sleeve art? (I’m reminded of tales of Sarah sleeve designs, you know, the ban on pictures of women on the sleeves and the fact they also hated having pictures of the bands…)
I usually collaborate with the bands to create the finished art. There are a few bands who like to develop artwork and in most cases they have good taste so I am happy with the result. In other cases bands need a little or a lot of help to finalize artwork, and in some cases I have relative freedom to design whatever I want. I have not really forced a veto on any suggested artwork but I have successfully moved bands to something better in a few cases. We have no stated bans on women or band photos on sleeves but then again, those Matinée artists are an attractive bunch, don’t you think?
6. Another Matinée hallmark is the cracking line of reissues – the Visitors, Siddeleys, Razorcuts, Brighter… are you still looking into further “archive” releases or will that line of work dry up now you’ve released some of the very best 80s stuff, say and want to concentrate on the current roster? (If not, how about James Dean Driving Experience?)
Although this cracking line of reissues is fun, the main focus will remain on the current roster. The Razorcuts and Brighter reissues came about because I was already working with Gregory Webster in Sportique and Keris Howard in Harper Lee and we received a lot of requests to reissue material from their former bands. Although the label focus is on the current bands, I personally would love to see retrospective releases from The Bodines and East Village and yes, James Dean Driving Experience, so there is always the possibility of more reissues in the future.
7. Do you think there’s a typical fanbase for Matinée? We worry that maybe fans of 70 percent of the bands might not always like Sportique’s recent stuff, say, or the dancier elements of Lovejoy’s work… if so does that frustrate you too? Or is it made up for by people getting those records who might not delve into the catalogue otherwise?
There is definitely a hardcore fanbase for the label and these wonderful people buy just about everything released. We love them. Other people come to the label because of one band and start discovering others they like as well. One guy wrote to me after picking up the Matinée 50 compilation “just so he could hear the Lucksmiths song” and he was blown away that the CD contained 19 other songs that he liked as well. He is quickly buying everything released on the label. That is very cool. Lovejoy and Sportique are two bands that continue to push the envelope. Both bands continue to sell well, though, so with a label catalog of over 80 releases I think it’s great to have this diversity. The new Smiths tribute record has great potential for exposing new people to the Matinée catalog. We shipped CDs directly to nearly 100 people this month who have never ordered from Matinée before and in some cases have never heard any of the participating bands. If a few of them discover bands they like on the CD and buy something else as a result we will be very happy.
8. Have you encountered any problems with distribution? We’re particularly interested in UK & Europe, given labels like 555 who’ve effectively been forced to give up – or are you ok simply because you’re selling records in sufficient quantities that you still have a decent bargaining hand?
I can honestly say I have no bargaining power with UK and European distributors, but we do continue to sell decent amounts over there. About half of all Matinée sales are outside the US, and because all of my US distributors also export, it could be even more than that. Having a regular release schedule encourages distributors to pay us so they can sell future releases. Downloading is having a negative impact on indie labels, though, so I think it will prove difficult to maintain sales going forward. We have doubled sales via our website mailorder in the past year, which is making up for declining distributor numbers. The number of label collectors also continues to grow and these fans are busy buying up the back catalog in addition to all the new releases.
9. And what of vinyl… are you confident you’ll be able to carry on putting out singles, at least on vinyl, or are there issues now with cost vs demand?
We have no new releases scheduled on vinyl at the moment, and I can’t see this changing any time soon. The cost is high for vinyl and fewer people seem interested so releasing a 7″ is a certain financial failure. We have never approached 7″ releases (or any singles for that matter) with an eye towards profits but instead as a way of gaining exposure for a band or simply an art statement. I love the fact that we have released 25 singles on 7″ and that several of them are among the top sellers for the label. In the next year a number of the remaining 7″ will sell out and that’s great because there are classic songs on those singles that people should hear.
10. Turning the new technology, you try to ensure that people can hear songs on the website. Are you aware / concerned about people getting Matinée band downloads from other sources, or are you quite comfortable that people who hear your bands that way are still buying them? (I suppose it’s a little like a replay of the old “home taping” debate…)
I have no idea if Matinée songs are available for download but can only assume they are if you know where to look. The Matinée website currently offers about a dozen mp3s from new releases and more than 100 real audio files from back catalog titles. These are designed to give people a taste and hopefully encourage further exploration and buying. I recognize that some people just download mp3s and never buy anything, but I suppose those people will likely not buy anything in any event so allowing them a few downloads is at least providing a bit of exposure for the bands.
11. Very interested to read (in tasty) that early Creation was a real inspiration…. Any thoughts on the other UK labels that were seen as “cool” back then – Cherry Red, El, Sarah, Subway… presumably Sarah was an inspiration at least to the extent that “A Smile Took Over” was an early Matinée artefact…?
Creation was the first indie that made me realize there was something important about label aesthetic. It was around the time of early Primal Scream, The Loft, The Bodines, Biff Bang Pow!, Jasmine Minks, Weather Prophets…and I realized one day that they were all on the same label. That made me wonder what else they released and I quickly started looking for anything with the Creation logo. Some of the other larger indies didn’t do it for me. I thought Cherry Red was too inconsistent in terms of style, so I could not trust the logo enough to buy everything on the label. I was never really an él fan although I love the Would-Be-Goods and James Dean Driving Experience releases. For awhile the Rough Trade logo was enough for me to take notice. I discovered Sarah and Subway a bit later but I fully supported what they were doing and probably have every release on the labels.
12. Have you ever been in bands yourself? Have you never been tempted to do an Alan McGee and indulge yourself with putting your own records out? (maracas on Airport Girl records don’t count!)
Hey! It was bongos, man! I have never had any interest in forming a band, probably because I don’t think I have any musical abilities. Just good ears.
13. What was the score with the Razorcuts and Snowdrops legal / clearance issues – as far as you’re allowed to tell us? Should such tortuous progress when you want to just get some great records out confirm our prejudices about major labels / “the music industry”? (Or lawyers?)
We keep no secrets from ILWTT readers. The Razorcuts and Snowdrops license clearance problems were frustrating but for very different reasons. With Razorcuts, we knew exactly where to go because Sony took over the rights to the Creation catalogue. The problem was that the potential upside for Sony from licensing Razorcuts songs was so miniscule in the scheme of their corporate profits that we could not get them to focus on the request. In the end we received a letter permitting us to go forward. With the Snowdrops, the request bounced among publishing companies in New York, London and Los Angeles and nobody could say they had the rights to “Mad World” but one of them eventually took our money so we were able to release the record. If only the millions of people who bought the Donnie Dorko version had discovered the Snowdrops instead we would be having a very different discussion today.
14. Nothing to do with music, but we recall you took an interest in staying up for some of the [soccer] world cup last year – is that still a relatively obscure interest to have in the States? Presumably you were following the USA team in particular – did you feel sympathy for them in that if they’d come from any other country in the world they’d have been hailed as returning heroes after reaching the quarter finals? (I know we did!)
Soccer is a hugely popular sport in the US, particularly among younger kids. I think American interest in the World Cup is growing as more and more kids (and their parents) get into the game. Soccer is particularly popular in Washington DC because it is such an international city and a frequent host to international matches, so living there certainly made me a bigger fan. I absolutely supported the US team but was also pulling for England, Italy, Brazil and Spain at various times. No matter how much they win, I doubt the US will ever be hailed as returning heroes because so many people consider them newcomers to the game. We’ll see what sort of response they get in Germany in 2006!
15. You’ve made it to London a few times in the last few years – do you have any favourite things about our sprawling home town?
The best thing about visiting London is that I have a lot of friends there, so when I visit I have a full social agenda. That makes it glamorous I suppose. There is a healthy music scene too so hosting or attending shows is always fun. You also have the best Indian restaurants in the world, superb record shops, great museums, and some decent architecture so my visits are always good fun.
16. And lastly, as a reward for so patiently wading through all these questions, do you want to plug some forthcoming Matinée delights before you go? Please do!!…
Of course! We have just released the fantastic debut album from The Liberty Ship called “Tide” and a slightly controversial compilation called “Romantic and Square is Hip and Aware” with 12 Matinée bands covering songs by The Smiths. The next releases include the “Bitter Club” CDEP by Pipas and a collection of obscure and unreleased recordings from The Fairways called “This Is Farewell.” After that, look for new releases by The Snowdrops, Lovejoy, Harper Lee, The Young Tradition, Pale Sunday and a few others. So save up your pennies…with the dollar currently so weak against the pound (thank you, George Bush) you’ll only need a few of them to buy everything we release in 2004.
and you can catch up with the latest goings-on at matinée by having a look around the official website. the photos are courtesy of matinée too – thank you, of course, to jimmy, especially for such open answers. j.t. is, quite genuinely, one of the kindest people we’ve met. that is all. ILWTTISOTT