July 6, 2012

Analog Edition Zine: Interview with Eric Isaacson of Mississippi Records

Back in the spring of 2011, I interviewed Eric Isaacson, cofounder and owner of Mississippi Records in Portland, Oregon, for the inaugural issue of the Analog Edition Zine. We spoke over coffee in Fresh Pot, the shop adjacent to his record store.

When did you open the store?
The record store opened 8 years ago.

What came first, the record label or the store? We had the store maybe 3 years before the label. The first label release was by this guy Alex Yusimov, who worked in the store and at the time didn’t have an address, so he used our store address and name to put out his own self-released record. So, the first record had actually nothing to do with me. And actually, the guy sitting right over there, (points) that’s the other co-owner of the label, Warren Hill. So Alex did that first release and at that point, there was no real label. One friend of mine was making a tape—an audio zine about police brutality in Portland—and she asked, “Can I use the name of the store as an address?” I said, “Sure.” And then a community of people put out a memorial record for a guy we liked. When my punk band put out 30 copies of a tape, it’d be on the label. But eventually Warren and I, we’ve been friends since we were 14 years old, we talked about how there was a lack of certain types of records. He had a shop in Montreal and I had a shop and we just noticed there weren’t a lot of cheap options for reissues of stuff we liked. There was a real gap at that time, so we threw together a couple of records out of the blue, and that’s what started the label. It wasn’t especially thought out.

Do you try to balance reissues with contemporary releases by artists like Mirah and Grouper?
No, we honestly don’t have a lot of luck with new records. We’ve done really well with reissues, so that’s our primary focus and our primary interest in general. It’s what we know. We’re not particularly hip to what’s happening currently. Most of the releases on the label from contemporary artists are more just friends of ours that we want to support. But aesthetically, we’re more geared towards older reissues. That’s more where we bring something to the table.

We’re really bad at promoting new artists. We don’t have a publicity machine or tour support. All we do is the physical object. There’s no promotion. And so we’ll do 500 copies of a contemporary artist’s release, but it will take us forever to sell. Whereas anything we do that’s old will sell really well and that’s just kind of the way of the world. Time does a really good job of validating music.

New artists have to hustle. When you’re a contemporary artist trying to get your music out there, I honestly have no idea how people do that. The whole Grouper phenomenon is really fascinating to me, because Liz doesn’t cede to formula, yet she’s super popular and beloved. Her music is resonating with lots of people everywhere. But she doesn’t promote herself at all. She has no interest in trying to grab people by the collar to get them to listen to her. And maybe that’s part of the appeal. Her music has cut through all the bullshit and that’s resonated with people. It’s totally fascinating to me, because that rarely happens.

Mirah - "Don't" (from Don't b/w The Tears That Fall 7")

She’s opened for some big groups. I remember seeing her open for Animal Collective at one point. Yeah, and a lot of those big groups will hear her record and say, “Wow, this is the real shit. “ And just call her out of the blue and be like, “Hey, open for us.” It’s purely about musical quality with someone like her. That’s a rare thing. She has a rare thing going.

Do you only handle her vinyl? We actually don’t put out her records, we just distribute. She self-releases her records. She makes them and drops them off in boxes and we deal with all the distribution. And it works really well with both of our styles. Neither one of us want a big hype machine. We don’t send promos to every distro, like, “Check it out, it’s the new Grouper!” We just sit on our hands and phone calls start coming in. Her two new records sold out during pre-order. Like within a day, they were all gone. Another contemporary artist I wanted to mention is Marisa Anderson. Her new guitar record Golden Hour has really blown me away. That record’s great. It’s an exceptional one in the canon of our new stuff. She’s been around forever and I’ve always been a huge fan of hers. She’s also a friend. We’ve been talking about doing a record of just her playing solo for a while. She used to play with this band the Dolly Ranchers, a folk band, and the Evolutionary Jazz Band, which was really great, but I always wanted to hear just a guitar record, because I‘ve seen her do so many amazing things. She’s the true consummate pro: plays three hours a day, everyday. She worked on that record for a year and a half and it was all recorded with our friend Michael in a house. Out of all of our contemporary releases, it’s probably the one I’m most proud of. It’s really special and she’s really excited about it and it’s actually sold okay. She’s somebody who’s never toured. She also doesn’t promote herself in any way. I could see her having a similar thing going as Liz with Grouper. I’m hoping people start to realize she’s a really special musician and catch on to her, because she’s someone whose art I really want to support. I wish I was better at it. I feel guilty and bad that I don’t know how to promote somebody like that. I feel like I’m doing her a disservice because she’s on our label, but that’s how she wanted to do it.

Marisa Anderson - "The Night Before Last" (from The Golden Hour)

And that was all recorded live, with no overdubs? Yeah, no overdubs. It was recorded and patched together over a year and a half almost like a diary. She would go down to our friend Michael’s house in the living room and just hang up one condenser mic and play. It has a very confessional—like you’re in someone’s house—feel.

How did the Alan Lomax collection work? You transferred all of the recordings from ¼ inch tape? The Lomax archives are actually still in existence and run by his daughter. This guy named Nathan Salsburg put us together. A lot of his recordings are in the Library of Congress on tape and a lot of the masters are still on shellac discs that he recorded in the field. He’d go out and cut everything directly with one or two mics. He’d have a cutting machine right there on the porch with the people he was recording, and cut it right there.

Fred McDowell - "Woke Up This Morning" (from I'll Be So Glad When The Sun Goes Down)

The archives have been transferring that material to digital files for years. They were originally going to do that project themselves and were going to self-release, but they’d never produced vinyl before. The conversation eventually evolved, and because we have such an affinity for the material, they said, “Why don’t you guys just put it out?” That material changed my life when I was young. Hearing all those field recordings was a really big deal for me. So, I was really enthusiastic when I talked to them on the phone and when we met we just really hit it off. So now we’re doing a bunch of projects with the archives. It’s really Top of the Pops for me—just as good as it gets. It’s just insane and intimidating how much work that guy did. How one person can record that much good material is beyond me. I feel embarrassed about what I’ve done with my life when I think about what he did in one or two years.

Michael Hurley’s considered a legend by a lot of folks, but I’d never actually heard him until stumbling across his records in your store. How did that relationship get off the ground? Hurley is great. He lives in Astoria, Oregon. He’s an older guy, about 70, but we have friends in common and he wandered into the store one day and was like, “Hey, I hear you have a record label. Maybe I should be on it.” I’d heard his name bandied about but had only heard Have Moicy! which is on Rounder Records and it’s his most popular record, but I didn’t like it. I still don’t. It’s the only record of his I don’t like. So I was like, “Yeah, sure. Uh, maybe. Let me think about that.” And then I investigated his catalogue and learned he’d been recording since 1964. His first album came out on Folkways and he has an incredible body of work. So it dawned on me that this nice guy I just met and hung out with turned out to be the best songwriter I’d ever heard in my life. It was a really weird moment, like, “What the hell?” Then I got into his catalogue, his oeuvre, symbology. He really created this whole universe and I started to put him on par with Bob Dylan.

Michael Hurley - "Automatic Slim & the Fatboys" (from Fatboy Spring)

Hurley’s the best. He’s had opportunities throughout his life—he won’t say this because he’s a modest guy—but he’s had opportunities at various points to become a big name, if that’s the direction he wanted to go. But the reality is he’s a very uncompromising and stubborn guy. Fortunately, his aesthetic vision and ours really match and so he sort of chose us, if you can believe that, as a label. It’s a total honor to have a guy like that on your label. It was sort of this amazing synergy that just happened. I don’t know if he’ll agree with this, but I want to reissue everything he’s ever done. I think it’s amazing that the world hasn’t paid more attention to him. He’s just such a singular songwriter. We see him all the time and I love him. He plays in Portland once every two weeks on average, but he plays these low profile shows. Once we promoted a show and got over 200 people, but he usually just plays in bars like Laurelthirst or Papa G’s vegan deli for like 10 to 15 people. It’s crazy and really incredible. People come in and out of paying attention to him, but he’s been gigging and recording for a long time. He does his own artwork as well, right? Lots of dogs and creatures. Oh yeah, has he his own universe. Space aliens, or I don’t know what he is: a creature that came out of the earth called Cornbread that he draws on a lot of albums. He has his own symbology that is pretty neat. He draws comics that are really good too. He’s a great artist and it’s no joke with him. It’s not some crap or joke he’s throwing on record covers to be funny. He’s really haunted by werewolves and stuff like that. It’s really happening.

Do you have a stance against web sites? Is there a point you’re trying to make by not having one? It’s funny you say that, because we’re probably going to have one very soon. It’s going to be very bare bones, just to make ordering easier. We’ve been person to person so far in how we distribute our records, but it’s more been just a lifestyle thing, not a stance. It’s not political or even aesthetic at this point. The Internet is like any technology that’s good and evil: it’s just how you use it. Personally, I just find it boring to deal with and there’s nothing aesthetically rewarding about a web page. Even labels that I love, when I go to their web page I’m underwhelmed, but when I see the actual record, I’m stoked. I feel it’s a hollow mockery of the record, but that’s just me and the limitations of my imagination. I’m not cued into the language of the Internet. But that being said, we don’t want our stuff to be rare or hard to find. That’s never been our goal. The only reason we’ve done small pressings is because we can’t afford to do big ones, and there’s a limited amount of people interested in what we’re doing. Now we’re finding that people treat us like we’re this obscure, hidden in the shadows kind of thing. But in reality, you can walk into our record store any day and talk to us. We’re easy to find. Or you can call the store during business hours. You can call and talk to anybody about whatever, but that’s not enough right now, because we’re a worldwide business and we have to face that reality. So we’ve been talking a lot about getting a bare bones site where someone can just press a button and order a record. There’s not going to be a blog with information or interviews or graphics, just a picture of the record cover and a price, because that’s kind of what I think of the Internet as—a catalogue device. And I appreciate that as a record storeowner. When I want to order from certain labels, I don’t have to call them or wait forever, I can just look on the Internet and write “I need 10 of these, 5 of those” and it’s convenient. I’ll admit it. I’m not going to pretend like I’m a total Luddite anymore. We’re entering the early 90s now. We’re getting there.

Will you have your full catalogue there? We’ll never have our full catalogue in the sense that all of our stuff goes out of print eventually. We just can’t afford to keep things in print. It’s above our financial means. Also, the nature of a lot of our releases and why artists want to work with us is because they’re limited. We don’t ask for any exclusivity, we don’t’ ask for any digital or downloadable rights. An artist that’s on Mississippi Records can do anything they want. They can make their own CD. Go to another label. Have digital downloads on iTunes. We don’t claim any jurisdiction on that kind of stuff. So the attractiveness is that we’re specific to the item. We just want to create a record that looks like this, sounds like this, has this many copies, we’ll give you this much money, and it’s a one-time deal. And that’s really worked to our advantage. A lot of artists work with us who have never worked with anybody else. Hurley’s a good example. He’s had such bad experiences working with the mainstream music industry, that we’re ideal for him. It’s done in a handshake and our business meetings take less than a minute. It’s very pure and simple. And he can do anything he wants. That being said though, we pay a premium; we pay artists a lot of cash upfront for every release. As a result, it would be very difficult for us to shell out a lot of money to get every release in print. We don’t want to create rarities or create frustration with people who can’t find our older titles, but at the same time, the price of doing these projects is that the old titles go out of print. When that web site goes up, it will comprise what we have now, which is maybe 25 titles. Plus we have 14 new titles that we’re going to launch all at once. So hopefully we’ll have almost 40 titles available. That’s the goal.

There are a lot of blogs that rip your releases and cassette tape compilations to MP3s. Is that something you’re aware of and okay with? Yeah, I’m totally cool with that. Even the records that people rip and put out. I can’t judge that culture. The reason I was first attracted to records over digital was because when I got into records in the 80s, they were the cheapest way to get music and they were the most available. It wasn’t about sound quality or how they looked. It was about what was the cheapest and what was around. And now we’re in this weird situation where suddenly records have become the boutique item and digital has become the cheapest way to get music. When we first started the label, we felt vinyl was the cheap people’s medium, but the reality is it’s this boutiquey thing now and we’re creating boutiquey art objects. Sitting with that is difficult for us, because it’s not really what we want to be doing. But at the same time, we have to be honest with who we are. We already have the turntables and all these attachments to the medium. But that being said, the fact that only 1 out of every 600 people in America has a turntable makes me feel like we’re not servicing the other 599. And if they want that music and they don’t want to go out and get a whole new rig or if they’re poor and can’t afford to buy records or a record player, who am I to be like, “You don’t get to listen to this.” No, I mean, do what you want. As long as people support what they can of the arts where they can, it doesn’t have to go to me. I’m sure everyone is doing what they can to support music. It’s up to the individuals. I can’t codify how everyone supports art and music in this world. That’s not my job. They have to come to their own conclusion about what they do and how they contribute to the world. Just because you’re ripping stuff doesn’t mean your ripping people off necessarily. So I don’t have a problem with it, especially with the mixtapes. We don’t make money off those anyways. They’re the most podunk thing in the world. The fact that people are listening to those on MP3s all over the world makes me really happy actually, because those are just personal mixtapes that we made for our customers. It’s supposed to be this intimate music sharing experience. The fact that it’s all over the web is really an honor. We get thank you letters from Russia, New Zealand, Singapore­—you name it.

There’s been a lot of talk recently about whether vinyl is making a comeback or not. Is that something you think might happen? Oh, it has made a comeback. No question about that.

Have you noticed that in your own store? The store’s in this weird kind of bubble. We’ve been doing consistent business for a long time, so we’re not really affected by the trends of the world too much. But in terms of the label—it was total happenstance—but when we started there was this new interest in vinyl. A lot of it was the download culture and the mainstream music industry trying to find a way to still make money and they saw vinyl as something you can hype up. Now if you watch David Letterman, he holds up a record, not a CD. That’s crazy. It’s a big deal.

The industry is scrambling and trying to find a way to make money, just like they did when CDs first came out. Nobody wanted CDs. CDs were forced on people. There were two big advantages. First, they were cheaper to manufacture. The other was they could sell Sgt. Pepper’s again to all the people that already owned it on vinyl on a new medium. So what they did was pretty conspiratorial. Every record label, they all had a clandestine meeting or two, and agreed that they were going to do the switch. And they agreed that all music retailers could now no longer return vinyl, but they could return CDs, which was a big deal for music retailers at that time. Back then, the game of having a record store was all about ordering a bunch of things, and whatever doesn’t sell, you return for credit to get whatever the new thing is and you keep it flowing that way. If you couldn’t return your vinyl, you were fucked. If you ordered 50 copies of the new Depeche Mode vinyl and you only sold 10, you were stuck with 40. Before that you could return whatever you didn’t sell and get whatever the next craze was, like A Flock of Seagulls. So what they did was force record stores to carry CDs that way. It was against the interest of the record stores, but it was in the interest of the big corporate companies. So that was very forced on people. People didn’t choose CDs. Especially when they first came out, the sound quality of CDs was crap. Now they’re probably as good as vinyl and digital technology has caught up with itself, but back then CDs had horrible sound quality and horrible durability. These were the crappiest things imaginable and I really believe they were forced on people.

So now what we have is the corporate music industry trying to do the same thing with vinyl. Getting people to buy that copy of Sgt. Pepper’s they have on CD again on vinyl. That’s the mainstream industry working. But then you have people like us and other smaller labels that have just always liked vinyl better and are excited to have the opportunity to produce it. I don’t know any artist that’s more excited to get a CD than a vinyl record. In the early 90s, when records weren’t produced by the majority of the industry, artists like Nirvana or Pearl Jam would be like, “I know you’re not going to sell any records, they’re not financially viable. But I, the artist, need to have a copy of my record on vinyl. So you need to make 2,000 copies. Just so I can have one.” And the record company would be like, “Fuck, alright. Fine, we’ll write it into the contract.” And those records are really rare and valuable now ironically because of that. That was artist-driven at that point. If the record companies had their way, there would be no Nirvana Nevermind on vinyl. It wasn’t in their interest at the time. Even Sting would do stuff like that.

Vinyl has been around longer than any other medium and as a result you’re dealing with the weight of history. The weight of essentially 120 years of music and the cultural power of that much stuff being invented through one medium. It’s like books. They’re trying to get rid of books with the iPad. That’ll take 100 years, because we have all these physical artifacts. In the last 100 years, vinyl has been a significant cultural force. And to just throw it all away and pretend you can get it all on a new medium really fast is absurd. A 100 years of art production taken and put on a laptop computer. That’s bullshit. I’m a professional finder of stuff that’s not on the computer. What’s on the computer is a very phony version of the world of culture. Maybe one-billionth of what’s interesting about humanity and what makes it beautiful can be found on the Internet. You’re dealing with thousands of years of human development. You can’t just cram that into one new form. All I ask for of the current technological world is to be humble. And be like, “Hey, you know our ancestors’ voices are embedded on vinyl.” You don’t have to collect the stuff. It’s financially difficult and spatially difficult and it may not be in your field of interest, but don’t’ throw it in the dump. Don’t just throw away something that’s been used for a 100 years. That’s a very modern problem. We have a culture that wants to throw away everything that’s not made this year and that’s absolutely bonkers. That’s a really dangerous mindset and that’s what I’m really a warrior against in a lot of ways. Or at least trying to be.

Did you participate in Record Store Day? Nope. We didn’t really do anything. I have nothing against Record Store Day, it’s just not really interesting to me.

What are your thoughts on all of the limited edition colored vinyl that comes with the holiday? Well, I hope I don’t sound like a shit talker here, but here it goes. My one problem with all that is a lot of people are trying to manufacture rarities. So it becomes a treasure hunt. Sure, a small company like us, we accidentally create rare records sometimes, because we can only do so many copies. We have financial limitations. Or an individual artist like Liz from Grouper, she doesn’t know how many records she can sell necessarily and because the money is coming out of her own pocket, she doesn’t want to risk making more than a 1,000. She just wants to make enough so that it exists. And that’s cool. Okay, rarities happen. But to set out to make something rare and to make people dig...

I’m really good friends with the guys from Sublime Frequencies, that’s one of my favorite labels. But those guys, I think they take secret delight in watching people scramble. They’re artifact creators. They create these amazingly beautiful art objects and they want people to appreciate them as such. I respect it. It’s not crap when they do it. But on Record Store Day, when there’s a limited edition Bruce Springsteen red wax version of whatever, it’s just trying to create hype. With Sublime Frequencies, I think they’re just generally attached culturally–they’re vinyl collectors. They’re just attached to this idea of a record as an art object and they’re not going to let it go no matter how many people they piss off by making their stuff limited. Our mission is the opposite in a lot ways–we’re very populist driven. We want everything to be cheap and available. It’s different philosophies and neither is right or wrong. Ultimately, history will probably reward them more, because they’re stuff is definitely going to resonate through time in a very significant way. Whereas our stuff will probably be in the dollar bins of the future, they’re stuff will be on the wall at record stores for like 200 dollars. But that’s okay. I don’t mind creating tomorrow’s dollar records today.

But that’s my only problem with Record Store Day. Otherwise, I think it’s awesome and adorable. It’s really cool that there’s an outpouring of support. At my friend’s store, they were talking about how they had their best day ever. I’m really happy that people support the stores they love. I thought we could end by talking about a couple of your favorite labels. Sublime Frequencies do some really unique work and they’re really bringing stuff to the table that no one would hear if it wasn’t for them. That’s a big deal. That stuff is not findable otherwise. Norton Records out of New York is one of my favorite labels. They keep everything in print, which is impressive. And they dig deep into R&B and rock and roll. It’s a heavy-duty label and I don’t think people appreciate them enough in America. They’re the true American roots label: the true outsider and individualistic art that’s the best part of American culture. And Norton is at the forefront. I think they’re one of the best labels going. I like a lot of other labels too, like Honest Jon’s out of London. Most are reissue labels. I don’t really know much about contemporary music. I’m just not tuned into it unfortunately. And I don’t say that like I’m proud of it. I wish I was more tuned in, I just have yet to get really into it. But I’m sure there’s music being made now that’s just as good as any older stuff, I just don’t know how to connect with it yet. In terms of contemporary labels, K Records and Kill Rock Stars are just very ethical labels that have really equitable deals with their artists. They really take care of their people. They promote them and really believe in them the way a small label should. They do 50/50 profit splits with their artists and that’s admirable. I like watching how those labels operate. Musically, I don’t know what’s going on, (laughs) but I like they way they treat people.

Visit the North Portland shop at 4009 N. Mississippi Ave., or if you don't live in Oregon, you can snag the label's vinyl via Forced Exposure.

The Golden Hour - Marisa Anderson

1 comment:

  1. Deep thanks for adding a new all time favorite song to my list - Automatic Slim & the Fatboys. A true gem.