Friday, April 4, 2008

Interview: Ben Swanson, Secretly Canadian Label Head

Ben Swanson, who runs Secretly Canadian with his brother Chris and friend Jonathan Cargill, took time from his hectic schedule to dish on the label's history, its day-to-day operations, its philosophy, and its unsung heroes; to hint at what's in store in the coming year; and to profess his love for Prince and the one-hit-wonders of the 1980s.

Nothing Quite Like: When did you decide to start a label (in your mind, not on a timeline), and when did you realize it would be viable long-term? For readers who don't know, would you give a brief history of Secretly Canadian?

Ben Swanson: I was in high school in Fargo, North Dakota. My older brother, Chris, had moved to Bloomington to attend IU a couple years earlier and began working at the college station, WIUS (now WIUX). He kept sending back all this great new music that was barely available in Fargo.

This was 1994/95/96, so finding independent music was still something of a treasure hunt. I was getting ready to graduate, and knew I needed to get out of Fargo and do something; really anything, I was just really restless in Fargo--I'm not sure if it's a product of a just having grown up there, or the over-riding sense that you're honestly in the middle of nowhere with little hope of making any sort of impact outside the immediate region. Somewhere along the line Chris met Jonathan Cargill (they worked together in a dormitory cafeteria) and Eric Weddle (at WIUS) and the idea was floated to start a label. We had no idea how, just knew there were all these great bands in Bloomington being overlooked. Eventually in the summer of '96 I moved out to Bloomington and we went to work.

Eric eventually left to start his own Family Vineyard label; it was totally amicable, and we're still very much friends.

NQL: What's a typical day for you? For the label? What's the general vibe in your office?

BS: I usually get up and check email before work. I come to work, check email all day. That's the bulk of it. Going to shows, etc., is obviously huge…this sounds really boring…basically it's a lot of logistics, putting together marketing plans, having publicity meetings, talking (with) bands, booking agents, etc…the vibe is pretty loose here, there's 10 of us in the Label Department (we have 5 companies run out of this office); everyone comes in between 9-9:30 and leaves around 6-8pm…We have a great staff, everyone works super hard and is a lot of fun to hang out with.

NQL: I've always been curious about the A&R process. Can you provide some insight? Do you actively recruit, or do you receive/listen to demos, or some combination of the two?

BS: Pretty much a combination of the two, it usually starts with seeing a show or hearing some sort of music. I can't think of an instance where we received a demo and got so stoked that we wanted to begin working with the band…usually if something (piques) our interest we get in touch with the band and go from there. It's a lot of dialogue, as we like to work really closely with our artists.

NQL: What was the first major success for SC? Conversely, what do you think should've caught on but didn't? What zeitgeist-y album failed to garner the attention it deserved? Personally, I think Marmoset should be indie-normous.

BS: Our first success was definitely Songs: Ohia. Putting out that first 7” and album opened a lot of doors for us, especially (with regard to) distribution.

I agree, Marmoset never received the love they deserved, I think they're the biggest heartbreaker. It's been fun watching how their records have sort of grown into the subconscious in a very small way. We get emails all the time professing their love for Marmoset. They're our Lungfish.

NQL: Is there a label-wide aesthetic you try to adhere to, some golden thread that connects the artists on your roster with one another? I'm not claiming to have heard SC's entire catalog, but the gulf between Antony and the Johnsons and Catfish Haven is pretty vast. Or do you consciously try to avoid being pigeonholed as, say, "the lo-fi label from Indiana?"

BS: I think the only thing we really try to ground ourselves in, is asking ourselves "Is this a record or artist we'll want to listen to in 20 years?"

NQL: You've had long-standing partnerships with countless artists, and I have never heard of anyone leaving your fold amid acrimony. What do you do to cultivate such fruitful relationships? What's your underlying philosophy?

BS: It goes back to the A&R process I think. When we work with an artist, we become 50/50 partners with them. It's us against the world, and we really strive to provide the best, most sustainable home for our artists. We have so many long dialogues about this partnership before beginning to work with and artist, and it's not for everyone--which is fine. For us it needs to be grounded in that core idea for it to work; and I think it minimizes a lot of awkward dialogues later on down the line.

NQL: How do you balance the needs of the business (i.e., making money) with artistic freedom? You can't put creativity on a timetable, but there has to come a time where the interested parties say "enough perfectionism." Are artists as eager to get their material out there as you are?

BS: There's no hard and fast rule. Our core principal is to make these projects sustainable. It doesn't do anyone any good to invest a ton of money in something if it doesn't make sense financially. Sure we have our loss leaders, but it's part of a bigger picture. And we take risks for sure, but they're calculated…I guess it's always a balancing act between a sustainable budget and total artistic freedom.

Personally I don't believe an unlimited budget provides (artistic) freedom. The best art is made adhering to certain parameters; be it financial, conceptual, timing, or whatever. Usually it's a combination of these and a myriad of other things. In most cases, loosing the financial constraints necessitates a tighter control over the focus/concept/ideas behind the project for it to be artistically/culturally successful.

NQL: With the Internet being a vehicle for self-releasing, how do you sell an artist the idea that the benefits of being on a label outweigh any risks or encumbrances? Of course some artists choose to remain staunch in their independence, but would you say that most eventually want to land label support? Do you ever see an end to the morass of self-released music on myspace, for example? Or is this just the evolution of a kid in his basement with a boombox, a guitar, and a bad microphone? What happened to quality control? Just because you can make music doesn't mean you should make music.

BS: I think most artists still want a solid home for support. Sure it's easier to self-release a record digitally, though it's more difficult (than) it has been in the last 10 years to self-release a record physically. Financial support aside, the single most important thing a label provides is context. Whenever I talk about records with people, the first or second question that's invariably asked is "What label are they on?" Instantly you're given a shorthand into what an artist is all about, much like "Sounds like so-and-so mixed with so-and-so."

NQL: Simplistically stated, Dead Oceans sprang from a distribution partnership coupled with common passions and creative impulses. Now it seems like every few weeks a new buzz-album comes out on DO, yet all are wildly different. What's your secret?

BS: Dead Oceans has been fun because it's been starting a label from scratch, but allowing us to play the game of "if I only knew then what I know now." Obviously it has a leg up because DO has a built in staff, distribution infrastructure, etc. But mostly it's Phil Waldorf, the GM of Dead Oceans. He does the A&R, and we have many long discussions about it, but it's pretty much his label to shape.

NQL: Does SC have any tricks up its sleeve for the rest of '08? What are you most looking forward to this year?

BS: Lots of stuff, it's crazy. SC specifically has three new bands that I'm super excited about: Seattle's Throw Me The Statue (have) gotten some good momentum in Seattle, but it's been exciting introducing them to the rest of the world.

Philadelphia's The War on Drugs just made the most classic record out of the gate, I can't get it out of my car stereo…I'm stoked for people to hear it.

LA's Bodies of Water: their first record did very well, especially for being self-released, we're definitely excited to put out their second record. They have to be the sweetest bunch of people on the face of the planet as well.

Antony's new record should come out this year, which will be amazing to work on again. He's such a genius. We also have David Vandervelde, new Damien Jurado, Frida Hyv√∂nen, Catfish Haven and a slew of others…that's just SC…

NQL: If you weren't running a venerable independent record label, what would you be doing? If I weren't a low-level employee of a large public university, I'll tell you what I'd be doing: astronaut. NASA already asked me once, but I was on tour with Phish at the time, and grilled cheeses were selling like hotcakes.

BS: I have no idea…probably something computer oriented or something with sustainability. Maybe move to Guatemala and become a bum.

NQL: What era or movement in pop music is your favorite? I hesitate to make any assumptions based on what your label releases.

BS: Mid-80's is so good. Talking Heads, Prince (PRINCE!!@#!!), Madonna, New Order, Guns N' Roses, INXS. It's the era of THE HOOK. The hook was everywhere, even in bad music. Like Phil Collins, he's easy to rip on, but the dude had HOOKS. He'll get in your brain like no one's business, and I have an immense amount of respect for that. There's all the one-hit-wonders too…I'm a total sucker for a good hook…

NQL: Who are your stand-by artists, the ones you put on and every time make you be like, "Yeah."

BS: PJ Harvey through To Bring You My Love (majorly disappointed with everything afterwards; those early records are some of the most raw and perfect pieces I've ever heard).

Talking Heads: Remain in Light is, what, 25 years old? (It's almost 28. --Ed.) It still sounds like it's from the future.

NQL: What are your favorite SC releases? The record-buying public, I think, recognizes that everyone has favorites--even label heads.

BS: You're right it's hard to choose, I have favorites at different times. Windsor For The Derby's We Fight Til Death is a total classic I keep coming back to regardless of mood and was generally underappreciated. I can't say that's my favorite though.

NQL: What are your hobbies outside of music? Do you even have time for hobbies?

BS: Hanging out with my lady and our dog. Obsessing over our house, trying--often in vain--to fix things…Playing music (we have a band together)…

NQL: What do you like most about Bloomington?

BS: I love that it's a small town, but there's enough to do where you never get bored. I couldn't live in a big city for very long, but I get bored easily…

NQL: Bloomington's population is largely transient, and at the same time there's a thriving arts culture. What effect do you think this transience has on the local artistic landscape?

BS: It's hard, it ebbs and flows…I think because of that it's difficult for a good infrastructure to be developed, the momentum is just so erratic…

NQL: Would you consider yourself a townie? I've heard different criteria for what constitutes a townie. Someone told me that you're not a townie if you're affiliated with IU (even spousally), but my understanding of townie has always been "lives there but isn't a student," ergo, I am a proud townie. What's your take? What are your criteria? Or is townie a reductive, offensive, bourgeois term that should be stricken from our lexicon?

BS: I'm not sure, I think I'm slowly becoming a townie…but then you go to the hospital or Spencer or something and you realize what a bubble you live in.

NQL: Morgan Freeman is president. Tea Leoni is most trusted face in cable broadcast news. Two meteors--the smaller one cleaved off the larger one in a failed attempt to avert cataclysm--are hurtling toward earth and you've just been selected to live out the two-year nuclear winter in an elaborate series of caves in the limestone beneath Missouri--but you can only take with you that which you can carry. What do you pack?

BS: My lady and dog.

NQL: Are you hiring? I personally know one enterprising young go-getter with a can-do attitude, a liberal arts degree, a background in writing and book publishing, and gumption to spare.

BS: Haha, we're not currently hiring but tend to have something open up every couple months…

--Brian Herrmann

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