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The Examiner interview with Knick Knack Records' Joe Johnson

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Knick Knack Records founder and owner Joe Johnson, discusses the origins, motivations and aspirations of Seattle based Knick Knack Records with James Carlson from the examiner.

 

These days, if one is an obscure music enthusiast with an aversion to the mainstream and also perceptive to the goings-on in the scenes to which one’s personal musical tastes subscribe, one easily sees independent record labels popping up all over the place. Many of the very same labels one first noticed the year before, however, are for whatever reason nowhere to be found this year, and certainly won’t be around the following one. Most of them are short-lived ventures; here one minute, gone the next. There are a myriad of different reasons why that happens, of course. But what it comes down, quite simply, to is this: only the individuals who own and operate their record labels properly are successful…to the extent that small outfits on the margins of the music world can be, at any rate. By properly I mean that one must run a superior label, first and foremost, by conscientiously striving to keep balanced the scales upon which art and commerce sit.

In addition to that, besides designing an original label whose roster of artists are bands and singer/songwriters whose songs people actually want to listen to, it is important that one have a code of ethics based on both artistic and entrepreneurial integrity—the music before the money, in other words. One must also treat one’s customers exceedingly well and value the artists whose material one releases. Other than that it is mostly a matter of offering quality products, whether the preferred format for the label’s releases is compact disc, cassette tape, vinyl, digital download, or two or more of the formats already mentioned, with carefully chosen artwork to grace covers, informative inserts or neat fold-out panels, accurate lyric sheets, tracklistings, durable sleeves and cases, and last, but certainly not least, great sounding music committed to top-shelf recording materials. And thus, they turn out to be lasting endeavors.

At present there are more than a few really excellent record labels, truly independent outfits with no mainstream affiliations, releasing only the very best albums by the very best artists. Some of today’s larger scale operations with multiple format releases and impressive catalogs of bands and singer/songwriters are Voodoo Rhythm, Alive Naturalsound, Hillgrass Bluebilly, Devil Down, Farmageddon, Asian Man, Chunksaah, Ghostmeat, 1-2-3-4 Go! Records, Animal Style, Top Shelf, and the like. And some of the relatively smaller labels with considerably less populated, yet exceptionally well chosen stables of artists, whose releases are not exclusive to but are primarily made up of special limited edition 7” records, are Squoodge, Stencil Trash, Suzy Q, Monster Mash, Off Label, Kizmiaz, 45rpm Records, etc. And a few equally small labels with different choices of formats are Plan-It-X, Cheap Wine, Fistolo, Recess, Silver Fucking Sprocket, Lauren Records, and so on. All fine labels with plenty of worthwhile releases.

Recently I made the acquaintance of one Joe Johnson, a music enthusiast and label owner whose independent Seattle-based outfit Knick Knack Records and online disto have done some pretty impressive things in the short time they have been in effect. Johnson and I shared some correspondence on the web during my review of the Knick Knack Records’ release The Bloody Scalp of Burt Merlin by the one and only psychedelic blues rock trio GravelRoad. The more I learned about the label—with its outstanding releases and highly professional online distro; not limited to but certainly preferred, the main format of the label is vinyl, 7” platters and 12” Long-players, indeed the only format for discerning audiophiles; the fact that Knick Knack is a record label run by artists and music lovers for artists and music lovers; and so forth—the more intrigued I became…that was, until I reached the point where I just had to interview Joe about it all. What follows is the content of that interview in its entirety.

First, how about a little background on Knick Knack Records? How did it all begin?

The label began in 2010 after I had been working at a couple of other west coast independent record labels for a couple of years. During this time I was also a very active musician in a few bands. I realized while working at the label that I was already performing many of the label functions for the bands I was playing in. Essentially I was only a business license away from becoming a label. The impetus for following through on that came when a friend of mine, Bart Cameron from the Foghorns approached me about his record that he had just completed. He needed some additional funding for the vinyl release and when I heard the recordings I knew right away that this was something special. It needed the proper treatment in its release. It needed to be on vinyl (blue vinyl specifically) and it needed a label to get behind it and do whatever it could to help.

The reality of running a record label and making it work as a business was something that had to be looked at differently that any of the labels I had been working for. None of them were making any money and they all eventually folded. The story’s been told a thousand times before. The landscape has been constantly shifting, and it really has been anybody’s game for a while.

I knew that as a small label there was no way we were going to make money on this first record. We needed a plan to be able to operate and continue to release records, so I created an online store that specializes in vinyl and features music and merchandise from bands that I feel fit in with our style and philosophy. These additional revenue streams help support the label and the bands.

If Knick Knack had a mission statement, what would it be?

Knick Knack Records is dedicated to being a force that shapes the future of the musical landscape while preserving the fiercely independent and rebellious spirit of rock and roll.

To date, what artists have you worked with? And what releases have you put out there in the music world?

The first record we released was from a Seattle band called The Foghorns. We followed that up by working with the late T-Model Ford’s band, GravelRoad, and releasing the LP “Psychedelta,” a 7” called “Pedernales,” and now “The Bloody Scalp of Burt Merlin”.

Mystery Ship is proving a force to be reckoned with, and we’ve done two EPs and a 7” with those guys. We’ve also done some great records from Half Light, Lonesome Shack, Lost Dogma, and Proud Wonderful Me, as well. We’re working in various capacities with a number of other artists by helping them with distribution and at times other label services. Our release calendar is pretty much full already for 2014, so in the short term we continue to be very busy.

Why do you prefer working with vinyl over other audio formats?

I like the vinyl format best because it’s a superior sound to my ears. Being a musician myself, I know the superior sound of a live band, of amplifiers and real analog sound waves hitting my ears and brain. Most digital music compresses audio in a way that certain sounds, tones, harmonics and frequencies just don’t translate in the same manner. I also prefer the vinyl format because of the opportunity for music and art to interact on a more suitable canvas.

I’m not sold on the whole cassette tape revival that’s happening right now. I like the novelty in the idea of it, but there’s been this trend of releasing music on obsolete and crappy sounding mediums, like that Canadian band that released a record that plays on a toy Fisher-Price record player. It’s become a marketing gimmick, and it serves no purpose to the music. Nobody is making any real money selling tapes, but it’s an easy way to get your music into the marketplace with a physical object. CDs are still cheaper and sound better, though, so I don’t totally understand it.

I think if you’re releasing good music you don’t need to resort to gimmicky formats and tactics.

Is there specific criteria that a band or singer/songwriter has to meet in order to be considered for Knick Knack Records, to make it an artist’s home label? Or do they simply have to be a good band that seems worth working with?

There are several sides to this question. I look for artists that can compete on a world class level. This might sound ambitious for a small label, but when you think about the history of rock and roll, it happens all the time. All of the heavy hitters in rock and roll were playing at world class levels when they were very young and unknown. Many of their first records were their best.

In terms strictly of music here is what I look for:

1) Musical ability/talent 
2) songwriting skills
3) and live performance skills.

Communication and teamwork are also very important to me. I don’t want to work with bands that are reluctant to work with a label. Some bands are just looking for someone to pay for their record and beyond that don’t care about being involved with if or how we sell it. My intention is to keep the art of it as pure as possible, and so this means we need to work together closely on how it is marketed.

I’m immediately turned off by bands that look like they are trying too hard to be like something they saw someone else doing. Be original and maintain your identity while moving forward. If pop culture has caught on to a trend and co-opted the style it’s time to be moving on. You want bands that are pushing the trend along, not following behind it.

Do you prefer working with specific genres or subgenres, like blues and rock (which is where your artists seem to lie so far)?

I would say it’s as broad as the genre of rock and roll. My personal interpretation of rock and roll means that it needs to rock. I like heavier music. Something with a kick drum that hits hard. I like bands that can rip a soulful guitar solo. My musical tastes lie in the vast middle ground between punk and metal.

You mentioned to me at one point that Knick Knack Records has a webstore and distro apart from its home label releases, with a wide selection of releases from many and varied artists and labels unassociated with Knick Knack save in a sales standpoint? What are some of the artists and labels being sold in your webstore/distro at present? And what seem to be the most purchased albums since you began down that road?

There are so many great bands out there that we would love to put out records for, but we just don’t have the resources. If we can help them by offering their records for sale online and taking care of the shipping and some promotion, then we definitely want to be involved. It helps bring together a community of music lovers who otherwise might not be able to access some of these really limited vinyl releases. We’ll ship to just about anywhere in the world, so we get a chance to see what other people are listening to, and they, in turn, get turned on to what we’re offering from the Northwest US.

I have always been a huge admirer of what the Alive/Bomp/Disaster Records crew have been putting out. I’ve admired their music selection and style so I carry and sell a lot of their titles. Tee-Pee, Light In The Attic; there’s a bunch of great labels putting out some great stuff. There’s a great exchange of music and bands travelling back and forth from Europe and the US right now. Bands like Graveyard, Kadavar, and Blues Pills are coming over here, and we’re sending bands over there to tour, so we’re able to connect with those music fans and turn them on to what we’re doing as well.

What projects are Knick Knack working on currently? What about the near future? And what do you hope to accomplish in the long run?

We just released new records this spring and summer from GravelRoad, Mystery Ship, Half Light, and Proud Wonderful Me, so we are still in the midst of promoting those records. Up next are few 7” vinyl releases from Mystery Ship and Michael Wohl. A new 10” EP from the Foghorns, and 7” and LP from GravelRoad in the spring of 2014. Plus we’ve got our eye on several other great bands for releases in 2014.

I want to build a label that is 100% independent and is a vital force in shaping the music landscape. I don’t want to be bored with music, and the music that is being released from most major labels just bores the hell out of me. The major labels and some of the larger “independents” (who are really just spin-offs, subsidiaries, and leveraged by the majors through partnerships or distribution deals) are not leading any music trends. They’re always chasing trends and don’t see what’s coming around the bend. When they do spot a trend that is getting traction they take the superficial elements of it and dress it up for popular consumption. I hope to challenge this establishment with my own vision and hope that others will appreciate it and be turned on to some new music that they might now otherwise get exposed to.

Lastly, if there’s anything I failed to cover, or if there’s anything you’d like to express or discuss, please feel free to do so now. The floor’s all yours, Joe.

Thank you James. I really appreciate the opportunity to talk about the label and our ambitions.

 

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