Monday, January 23, 2006

7 1/2 Questions with: Undeniable Records

So, this is a new feature on this site. Its called seven and a half questions. Its pretty damn simple. We ask someone of interest in the local music scene seven questions. They give us seven answers. Then we ask them half a question. They fill in the rest of the question (making it another full, and I guess 8th question), and then they answer that too. Get it? We don't.
Our first installment is with Zak Alexander and Chris Harris, founders of Undeniable Records, which is probably one of if not the only local record label worth writing about. The two grew up together in Dallas, then took different paths playing in bands and doing various other things like getting edumacations in different parts of the country, and both eventually wound up back in Dallas a few years later. Chris had been thinking about starting a label for a long time, and a conversation with members of the Happy Bullets helped turn his idea into a reality, culminating in the release of the Happy Bullets' album The Vice and Virtue Ministry. Soon after, the label released Le Fun, the first record by the Tah Dahs. Recently, the label came to an agreement to put out the next release by local favorites the Theater Fire. Here are the questions that we asked them over email:

Congrats on the Theater Fire signing. How did this signing come about, what attracts your label to the band, and what kind of success do you anticipate for the band in the near future?

(Chris) When we started the label, we had always talked about how we wanted the Theater Fire on the roster. They were on a very short list of bands that we wanted to have as release .. 3 or 4. They knew we were interested in them, and we got in touch with each other when the release was going through final mixes. As is often the case, finalizing a record takes much more time than anyone thinks, so we were just keeping in touch over the last few months. We dropped them a line on Jan 1, met this week, and agreed to work together. As far as success, that is sort of subjective. If the band is happy with the release, and we work hard for the band, and we all like the record, I think that is a success. Would we love to sell 30,000, and pay the bands enough that they could quit their day jobs? Of course. But right now, we are not really measuring success in units and dollars. We want to release the records we love, do everything we can for the bands, create the community, and the rest will take care of itself. I don’t think we would be able to be passionate about what we do if we were only concerned with money.

(Zak) Thanks! Like Chris said, the Theater Fire was always a band we felt would be a fantastic 3rd or 4th release, as they have a unique sound coupled with great songwriting. We want Undeniable to be known for diversity in sounds, not just one particular sound. We feel very strongly about this record, ever since we heard the early rough demos we knew it was going to be a great record. As Chris said success is tough to talk about in numbers. We want the Theater Fire to be happy with the results and as long as they are, then that is success. I think this will be a great year for them and playing SxSW is a huge opportunity for them.

Austin is pretty much the official capitol of indie rock in Texas right now, even though Dallas has so many more people, and thus, one would think, so many more musicians. Denton also seems to have a pretty thriving scene. Do you think Dallas is falling behind because unlike those cities it doesn't have a real college scene? What are some of the other problems that Dallas faces as a musical community, and what can be done about them if anything? Is it a matter of music quality, venue quality, fan quality, or what?

(Zak) Dallas definitely suffers from the lack of a college scene, SMU does not count, and that will always be a hindrance. I think the scene here is a bit too fractured at times, but really too many people focus on the bad and not the good. Dallas and North Texas has just as many talented people playing great music that is interesting and different, as Austin does. We have plenty of good venues to see bands play, most of which are no longer in Deep Ellum. There is no doubt in my mind that we have just as many incredible bands as Austin does, and here at least, they develop without some of that annoying hype. If we keep beating up the scene or treat fans like crap, yeah we kill the scene. North Texas is capable of producing something to rival that of Austin. I think this area is going through its best years yet, better than the ‘good old days’ of the 90’s.

(Chris)You’re right, the biggest problem with Dallas is that there is no College scene. Most of the amazing music scenes happened around a college atmosphere. College tends to be a time when people have energy and interest in things, and think that belonging to a music scene is something worth their time. As people get older, have to get up early, have jobs and spouses and kids, priorities change, and I think this is why the college town scenes thrive. There is a constant influx of new people, new influences, and new ideas that surround a college scene. Another part of Dallas is that can be challenging is that there are only a handful of great places for indie / underground bands to play. In Austin and the surrounding areas, there are little clubs everywhere that are cheap, well run, and have great music and a great reputation. We don’t really have that here, and in the past few years, most of the touring underground acts have bypassed Dallas in favor of Denton. There are some great places to play in Dallas (Double Wide, The Cavern, the Tea Room) but sometimes getting people out to these places can be tough. They don’t really have that “built-in crowd” that you find at a lot of the places in Austin, so there are times where the bands are preaching to the few converted. One of the things the Minutemen did in their early shows was play early when they played on weeknights. Having come from working class families, they understood that there were people out there who needed to get up early, and wouldn’t come out to late shows. This gained them a new and untapped crowd. I’d like to see us continue some of the interesting shows that the bands have put together over the last year. There have been benefits, art installations, sound installations, some things that you don’t always associate with a Dallas scene. I’d like to see some more things like this from some other bands around town, to kind of break with the traditional club show. I love the club show, but sometimes things can get really interesting when bands get taken out of this element and experiment more with different surroundings.

Are there any new bands in Dallas/Denton/Fort Worth that you know of right now that not many people have heard but are really good? Any diamonds in the rough?

(Zak) Well, we always have our ears open for new stuff. I can’t think of off the top of my head any unknowns plugging away. I really enjoy the Strange Boys, Mazinga Phaser, the Shapes, Pleasant Grove… all of them are doing interesting things and are good live shows. I think Blackheart Society has good promise... Like I said before there are a lot of good bands playing, just go out and see them.

(Chris)Absolutely. Don’t know if they qualify as unknown, but The Strange Boys, The Shapes, Jetscreamer, Deathray Davies, Recordhop, Pleasant Grove. There are some from the surrounding areas that I also love, Knife in the Water, The Shells, Belaire, One Umbrella, Explosions in the Sky…the list could go on a while.

How do you feel about people that download records that your label has released off file sharing sites, and how much has this affected your business? Is there anything small labels can do to adjust?

(Chris)I agree with Zak’s answer below, and don’t support illegal downloads. I remember being a kid in the late 80’s / early 90’s and waiting by my AM/FM Cassette stereo waiting for whatever song I loved at the time to come on so I could record it on glorious Maxell Tape. I couldn’t always afford to run out and buy everything I wanted, so this is how I got the music I wanted. As my tastes grew, this became recording 45’s of little college bands, making tapes for friends, recording CD’s to tape, etc. I think that the way that things are now really aren’t that different, it is just easier given the communication medium. There are things that a small label can do to adjust to the new climate of digital music. Most of the giant labels have had a really hard time with this, and I think that we can use the new climate to our advantage. We saw just as much, if not more success and interest when the bands appeared on mp3 sites and blogs than we saw when we had traditional radio airplay, or traditional press. Giving away a song or two can be a great way to spark interest in folks who otherwise would never hear the track. Smaller labels can adjust marketing ideas and change their thinking much more quickly than larger labels, and this can be a significant advantage.

(Zak) I don’t support illegal downloads, but just like everyone else I used Napster in its heyday but I bought the records I sampled. It’s hard to tell if this has hurt us. We do know that MP3 blogs like Gorilla vs Bear and podcasts have helped us tremendously and we fully support what they do. The people who read those blogs are in it for the music and they will buy a cd if the like what they hear. I think most people don’t want to buy records anymore without hearing them first. That’s the future along with the online zines and the download services like iTunes, eMusic and Rhapsody, even My Space has become an almost indispensable tool in this digital era of music.

In the eyes of many, the success of the Clap Your Hands Say Yeah record this year is a perfect example of why signing to a formal "record label" really isn't necessary in order to have underground success anymore, considering that bands can run their own websites, sell albums over the net, and promote themselves through blogs. What does signing to a small record label like yours do to help new bands in the current climate?

(Zak)CYHSY was an awesome story and I love that record. But, many bands are not fortunate enough to garner all that hype and a 9.0 or whatever review from Pitchfork. Also, those guys put in a ton of work themselves to get that press. Many artists just do not want to take the time to do what those guys do all the while touring their asses off too. Not every band is going to be able to negotiate their own national distro deal like what they got, hell they were the first rock act to ever do that. What a label like us does, is partner up with an artist and help them do the things they cannot do or don’t have the time to do. I think labels are still totally viable, because they allow artists to focus on making art rather than focus on business.

(Chris)While I have a tremendous amount of respect, and am in awe of what they were able to do, there really is very little difference in what they did vs. what Merge, SST, Touch and Go and Dischord did in the 80’s and 90’s. All were started as a way to get their own bands out, and retain control of their product. CYHSY were obviously very smart in the way that they approached things, and basically ran a label for their own record. It does show that with work and passion, people can do anything they want. The idea behind the label, again, is always to support the music we love 1st. We want for all of our bands to be friends, and work together. Right now, this is probably the most appealing asset for potential bands. I knew many of the Happy Bullets as friends for years before the label, and played in another band with a few of the Tah-Dahs before the label. This friendship lends itself to working together for a common goal, and we hope will continue to build a community of bands that work in tandem to make the scene better.

What avenues do you use to get air play for your bands, if any, and do you find the current Clear Channel dominated system or radio playlists to be a major problem for new bands on small labels? What have your experiences been with college radio?

We have used a publicity company in the past, and this has gotten the bands onto some college stations. As for Clear Channel, as far as the label is concerned, we couldn’t care less. They don’t play music that we like, and operate in a vacuum that we are not and do not want to be a part of. As consumers of music, the fact that there is this monster radio dominating company really means that we have to go to other methods to get our music, and this is why targeting podcasts and mp3 blogs and sites can be so advantageous. There is much more to the music world than FM radio, and we believe that the best way to get our music heard is going to be outside of the traditional radio mediums.

When can we expect new releases from the Tah Dahs and Happy Bullets?

Neither record has a date associated with it yet. The Tah-Dahs new record is still in progress, and the mixes we have heard are fantastic. They have moved forward with the sound and feel of Le Fun, and added some additional elements that weren’t captured on the 1st record. The Bullets are kicking around with digital home recording, and have no definitive plans for a release date either. If they are kind enough to go through the release ride with UnRec again, we will be thrilled to let everyone know what the plans are!

While some feel the show was a success, many consider Chris Elliot's "Get a Life" to be one of the worst shows in the history of television. If you could tell us why the detractors of this genius show are eggheads, what argument would you make?

Anything that spawned “The Handsome Boy Modeling School” masterpiece from Prince Paul and Dan the Automater is tops in my book. Elliot is like a master painter who can only be understood after he is one. Much like Van Gogh and Monet, he paints his television canvas with nuggets of Genuis that are beyond our feeble human comprehension.

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3 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Lovely! Glad to see the DIY ethic is still in effect! Thanks for mentioning The Shapes! We are honored!

7:28 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hey,

the guys at undeniable should help the strangeboys get their EP out!

...it's clearly good as hell, and it's FINISHED.... i'd love them to get this EP out and then begin work on a full length (which i have no problem seeing them use a few of the EP songs on)


.... just a thought.

3:34 PM  
Blogger wakka-wakka said...

These guys seem to do everything the right way: they sign the best bands in town and spend enough money to make sure they get the attention they deserve. A couple of months ago, when the Tah-Dahs and Happy Bullets each got multiple mentions on stereogum and popmatters (and of course GVSB, but you should expect as much), I felt better about the Dallas music then, well, ever (on a related note, I think they're absolutely right about the so-called glory days of the nineties--they didn't exist).

They did answer the Chris Elliott question wrong though. He doesn't actually paint in nuggets of genius, but merely wills genius to appear on the television screen, fully-formed and perfect, much like Venus emerging from the foamy sea.

12:49 PM  

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