The Importance Of Being Strangefolk The Good Citizen Interview Part Two
Late last summer, the four members of Vermont's "next big thing" Strangefolk came to the Good Citizen office in beautiful downtown Burlington and graciously suffered through the interview thing with Good Citizen editor Andrew Smith. Part One of this interview, in Good Citizen #10, focused on the early years of the band and how they got from being just another UVM band to the national act they are today. In Part Two of the interview, the band talks about their recent signing to the Disney owned Mammoth Records and the bright, bright future of Strangefolk. Reid Greneur: A lot of what we’re talking about is like, looking back on our career, but we’re really just starting now.
AS: You really are. There’s a level, and a level, and a level.
RG: Yeah, we’re picking up new information, but there are always new hurdles.
Jon Trafton: One cool thing, as we collect all these milestones, all along, the most important ones for me are the moments, on stage, musically, when we really hit it and we’ve just known that we hit it. It feels good. Those are the moments for me when I know that we’re really doing it. When we come together, even for a short moment. All these other things are sort of external rewards for, hopefully the music and what it’s saying to people, and when it says it to us...that’s a pretty powerful thing.
Eric Glocker: I agree 100%.
RG: I always call it stringing pearls together. There are times when you’re on the rope and kind of sagging below, but when you hit that pearl again...you know, it makes you hungry.
Luke Smith: That’s definitely the bottom line. The music. All the cities that we went to -- Boston, Portland, New York -- we always started on the bottom. Sunday night gigs in some dive bar. Bars where no one would go, we had to bring an audience. We developed a fighting attitude. Fighting for what? I dunno, but we kept doing it.
AS: And now, from dive bars to a major record deal. How did you get from the first demo to signing with a record label owned by Walt Disney?
RG: At first, we put our discs in every city at one store on consignment, and then in our newsletter we told people where to get it. Then we got distribution through a company called Passport, and then they died. So for a while, we did it ourselves again. Now, Weightless in Water will be distributed through ADA.
AS: So, Weightless will be re-released through Mammoth and distributed through ADA? Doesn’t Disney have its own distribution?
RG: They have two routes. One is the independent route, which is through ADA, and they also have a major label route, like the Squirrel Nut Zippers use. The thing with Weightless is, it’s not their record, they’re just helping us promote our indie release.
AS: And this will help you continue your gradual approach, instead of getting huge all of a sudden.
LS: I think it’s been a conscious effort on all of our parts. The gradual incline feels safer.
AS: When did you release Weightless?
JT: Halloween ('97).
AS: How soon was it before labels started coming to see you?
RG: We’d had nibbles and interest from labels of all different shapes and sizes, for a couple of years, but it wasn’t until after Weightless that we got any offers. We never went looking for them. They would call. We’d send them our stuff. We’d make sure they got it, and that was it. We weren’t banging on their doors. We didn’t send anyone in to pump them up. We figured, when the time comes, it will come.
LS: That’s the conventional wisdom of the bands in our so-called genre. They just did their thing and formed their own organizations. They did it themselves. Then when the time felt right to make a deal, the bands had a lot more clout. The bands can say, “Look, we already have all this. We have a fan base, we put out albums. This is a relationship that we’re both going to profit from, and we’re not desperate for you to sign us.” A lot of bands are.
JT: A lot of bands think that getting signed is like “making it”, which is usually the beginning of the end for a lot of bands.
AS: It’s a whole new set of problems.
JT: Yeah. Basically. Signing can be good, but most of the times it isn’t.
AS: But now you’ll be seriously distributed.
RG: Right. If someone wants to find our CD now, they can.
JT: That’s huge.
AS: And you’re jumping to a bigger booking agent in the fall. Is that gonna be a smooth transition?
RG: It seems like it.
JT: The booking process seems to be much quicker. But it’s been a rough summer, so it’s hard to tell. This fall there are a whole bunch of bands trying to sweep across the country at the same time, which is making it kind of hard.
RG: We’re very patient. I think that’s the key with Strangefolk. Instead of jumping here and jumping there, we’ve kind of waddled through the mire.
AS: But it’s been a very organized waddle. It’s not like you’re total slackers who just let everything happen to you.
LS: But definitely a waddle. Not a streamlined jet. And since we’ve all been living together, things have been so much easier, we don’t have to fight about anything. It’s all Strangefolk. We’re all taken care of. We all have a roof over our heads. We have cable TV.
JT: No, we don’t anymore!
LS: What? Well, we used to have cable back in the good old days.
AS: Now that you can’t watch TV anymore, now what? Weightless gets re-released on Mammoth.
RG: Next spring, our first album for Mammoth should come out.
AS: And when do you record that?
JT: Probably November or December.
AS: Are you going to work with a producer?
AS: Are you listening to music trying to figure out who you’d like to work with?
JT: Yeah, I have been for a really long time. Once I figured out what a producer was all about, which took me a really long time to understand. I really care about how things sound. How the drums sound.
AS: Did you produce the first three yourselves?
JT: The last two it was us and Dan Archer.
RG: It was a really gray area for a while. Dan added a lot. At first it was just him popping up from under the board and saying things like "Hey puppy, why don't you play that better?" and then he started to like what we were doing and he got more involved.
JT: I’m really a freak about tones. Dan was always willing to let us sit there and look over his shoulders. I don’t know what kind of a situation we’re going to have with a big producer. We had a good experience recently when Mammoth wanted to remix a song for a single and we said “sure” and we ended up really liking it. I’m usually a control freak about the music, but I’m really happy with it.
AS: What song?
AS: Did they shorten it for the single?
RG: The thing that was really appealing to us about Mammoth was that when we said to them “This is who we are and this is what we want to do and this is what we feel we deserve, in terms of your commitment and our creative control. We said, "you can work with us in our format, but if you don’t, that’s fine. We’ll move on and do our thing." They were cool with that. They’re certainly more mainstream music industry than we are, but we met every person in their office. We sat around a table with the entire company! In a lot of ways, they mirror how we operate.
AS: Are they still in Carrboro, outside of Chapel Hill?
LS: Yeah. The people that work at Mammoth are really fired up about Mammoth in the same way that the people who work for Strangefolk are fired up about Strangefolk. It feels like two teams joining together.
AS: I’ve always liked Mammoth. I have a lot of CD’s on Mammoth. Blake Babies. Juliana Hatfield. Antenna. I was in a movie that filmed at the Cat's Cradle up the street from their offices and I went down and stalked them for a while. Who’s on the label today?
LS: I’ve been checking out Joe Henry.
AS: Madonna’s brother-in-law.
LS: He is?
JT: Jason and the Scorchers.
AS: No way? (Points to autographed Jason and the Scorchers picture framed on the wall of the Good Citizen office.) I didn’t know they were still alive. Cool.
RG: Obviously the Squirrel Nut Zippers.
AS: And the deal with Disney? Did they just buy the whole company?
AS: Will you get free Disney stuff? I heard that Universal employees get $200 Seagrams gift certificates for Christmas bonuses.
JT: Christmas is gonna be a little blurrier this year, kiddies.
RG: It’s all good, but I don’t think that this is changing us at all. Brett was kind of bummed out...”You guys are just signing a record deal! Why aren’t you ecstatic?” If this had happened four years ago, we would have been drinking champagne and breaking windows.
JT: It’s definitely a great opportunity, but we don’t see it as making it, it’s just another step along the way.
Andrew Smith is the editor of Good Citizen and interviewed Trey Anastasio for Good Citizen #7.