Song #35: Penguins Kill Polar Bears – “Wish With Worry”

•September 26, 2020 • Leave a Comment

I mentioned earlier that we had found this great band in Scotland, Lions.Chase.Tigers. They were quick to contribute a track to our Haiti compilation, and as a result, some of my pals here in the US fell in love with them. Based on the recommendation of Bill Peregoy, the owner of the once-great Pop Narcotic label, I continued to bother Lions.Chase.Tigers in hopes of releasing their next record.

Unfortunately there never was a next record.

By the way – I refer to Pop Narcotic as “once-great” not because something happened to it to make it less great, but because Bill mothballed the label. He released my favorite compilation album ever, the masterful Why Do You Think They Call It Pop?. He also ran a LISTSERV in the 90s where I met a ton of great people, and some people around the country that also owned labels – those people gave me tons of advice about how to run a label, most of which I did with far less success than they did, but which was helpful and fun anyway. I call it “once great,” but I would love Bill to one day revive his label. Make Pop Narcotic great again.

Anyway, Lions.Chase.Tigers somehow shattered after just one EP, though I did stay in touch with members of the band. I kept in closest tough with their guitar player, Fraser Sanaghan, and he eventually told me about another band he joined, called Penguins Kill Polar Bears.

In Scotland, apparently animals do things to other animals and they make band names about it.

Penguins Kill Polar Bears

I was completely into the idea of Dromedary becoming a gateway for Scottish bands to expose their music to absolutely nobody in the United States by putting out music on my label. At the time, I was talking with four or five different Scottish bands about how I could help them absolutely not at all, and how I’d love to put out their music and maybe help them get shows in the New York area where nobody would go to see them. I figured it would be a win-win, where Dromedary would be able to release records by some great Scottish bands for nobody to buy, and in exchange, the Scottish bands could get the benefit of exposure to nobody in the States.

Penguins Kill Polar Bears thought it sounded like a great idea, which is probably why we hit it off so well.

We were in Vermont at a family Thanksgiving party when Fraser sent me a batch of songs via email, which I was somehow able to download to my phone despite the awful Vermont cell service, and when we got in the car to head back, we had a half dozen or so dramatic, post-rock flavored tracks from this group of young kids, and a suggestion from them that they’d love for us to put out in the States.

Sandy and I listened to them over and over, all the way home. I liked them, she loved them, and the idea of putting out this record by animals doing something to other animals slowly crystallized as we drove.

Here’s a thing I remember about Penguins Kill Polar Bears: we were still working on planning the release of the album when Josh Silverman died in February. A lot of people associated with Dromedary at that point had known Josh for years, and the news rippled through our community and shook everybody up quite a bit.

Right about the same time, Penguins Kill Polar Bears did an on-air interview on some radio station in the UK. About midway through the interview, when they started talking about their forthcoming record, they mentioned their US label, and how Josh Silverman had passed away. They talked about Shirk Circus, and how we were all grieving over here, and they expressed their condolences. I was tuned in via internet, and was really moved by that.

Nobody in fucking Scotland knew who Shirk Circus or Josh Silverman or Dromedary Records were. These young guys had exciting shit brewing – a growing community of fans, an upcoming album and tour – and instead of hyping their project, they took the time to recognize the passing of someone 3,250 miles away who they’d never met, of whom the listeners had no knowledge. Those guys were pretty cool.

When I was trying to learn more about Penguins Kill Polar Bears to put together marketing material for the record, I discovered a digital recording of the song “Wish With Worry” online that was a bit faster, without the dramatic pauses and quiet passages. It was more of a straight ahead rock song, and it made me like the version on our album a lot better. For a long time, it was my favorite song on the record, not because I liked it best, but because I liked the other version best.

I’ve lost it, by the way – it was on a hard drive that crashed years ago.

Vessels & Veins, the EP we did with the band in 2011, got a few nice reviews and attracted virtually zero attention in the United States. I didn’t really expect it to – the band couldn’t make it here to tour, so any sales in the US would be the result of whatever publicity we could generate for it on our own (and any PR that they got in the UK that attracted the attention of American fans), plus the Scottish fans of the band that wanted to have an “import” version. I probably spent more money inaccurately estimating the shipping costs of individual records to the UK than we made on sales combined.

I didn’t care. It all was worth it when, in 2017 or so, Fraser made it to New York City and Sandy and we met him in person for the first time. I suggested we meet at the most touristy fucking place we’ll set foot in – McSorley’s Old Ale House in the East Village. We sat there and made a bit of small talk, and then after the first beer, Fraser said something to the effect of “So, umm, people over here actually like Donald Trump, yeah? The fuck is that all about?”

Worth. Every. Penny.

So here’s the EP version of “Wish With Worry,” from the 2011 Vessels & Veins EP. Remember: every penny of profit from every download from now til Election Day goes right to Swing Left to help Make America Blue Again.

Song #34: The 65’s – “I Got You”

•September 25, 2020 • Leave a Comment

September 25, 2020
Song #34: The 65’s – “I Got You”

“I wrote that song for my wife,” Joe Puggle explained to me when I first heard it.

The 65’s are basically a hard rock band, but they’ve got this gritty, New York City vibe. It doesn’t hurt that the band is closely associated with Shirk Circus, or that some of its members play in horror punk bands, or that Joe’s voice is “gravelly,” but they’ve got a dark sort of feel to them. Their songs are basically pop songs, until you listen to the lyrics and hear things like “The end will come quickly, better hope you’re ready for it/When the world starts laughing at you, you might be forced to quit.” And then the melodic vocal harmonies join in, singing “Forced to quit!”

That’s some pretty dark shit. And then, right in the middle of the record – a love song. It’s a Joe Puggle dark love song, with lyrics that are much less “moon in June” and much more “I’m a fuckup, I can’t believe I got you, I don’t deserve you.”

We had a little falling out with The 65’s in 2013. In 2012, we had a tough time – I went into the year coming to the realization that I didn’t really like my career, which led to the ending of the business I co-owned. At the same time that was happening, my wife’s father fell ill, and while he was dying in New England I was running the house, being a dad to three kids and trying to work and navigate the complicated, brutal dissolution of a company. And right after we were able to unwind the business, but before I had decided how to move forward and find a new career, we got hit with a major home issue that cost $30,000 to repair. As that was happening, I had an insane neighbor threaten to murder my entire family, and so I needed to deal with that. Dromedary Records was the last thing on my mind at the time, and The 65’s wanted to get an EP out with “I Got You” as the lead song. Eventually they did it themselves, and during the ensuing back and forth, Joe kept saying the same thing:

“I wrote that song for my wife.” The guy loves his wife like crazy. You should see them together. When two people are crazy about each other, they glow.

Ultimately, we’re all still friends, which is cool. What’s even cooler is that it resulted in the genesis of Pyrrhic Victory Recordings, a label run by Joe, another way for unknown independent bands to get their music out there with the backing of a label. They’ve put out some great shit, by Galanos, and Miss Ohio, and Bug Martin and Scary Hours and a bunch more. We even released a record together, a quick, one-and-done cover of “Personality Crisis” by The 65’s to help raise some cash for Sylvain Sylvain’s cancer treatment.

The 65’s, circa 2011 (L-R: Cindi Merklee, Dan Smith, Joe Puggle, John Steele)

The whole “I’m a fuckup, I don’t deserve you” sentiment is definitely one with which I can identify, by the way.

I went away to college a scared 17-year-old hoping to make it through one year of college, suffering from walking pneumonia and with a giant welt on my right shoulder that resulted from a drunken spill on the alpine slide at New Jersey’s Action Park. On the very first day of classes, I was introduced to Sandy – we walked back to our dorm together, and she hasn’t left my side since. I went from being a scared kid to being an overconfident knucklehead, and for some reason, Sandy has hung in there with me the whole time.

By my count, I am on career #5. I jump from job to job, from ridiculous idea to ridiculous idea, putting out records by bands nobody knows, writing shit nobody reads, yelling as loud as I can into outer space, usually nobody acknowledging the yelling. I’ve had near nervous breakdowns, midlife crises, have picked up stakes and moved to a completely new lifestyle about which I knew nothing – twice. I’ve left lucrative and stable careers to try something completely new that I knew nothing about – four times.

Sandy has been right there, the whole time. Ridiculous, yes?

One of the benefits of being me is that I stay awake until I’m ready to go to sleep and I stay asleep until I wake up. Though Sandy gets up at a set hour and starts her day with a list of things to do, I have no schedule, possibly because she is an anchor in my life that makes sure that all the important things are taken care of here on earth while I’m up in outer space, yelling.

This morning, though, I woke up much earlier than usual, and Sandy was still asleep. I was lying there in bed, running through the list in my head of all the stuff I had to do today, and then I heard Sandy stir for a second – I looked over at her, and realized that I wouldn’t be able to do a single thing on my list today if I didn’t have Sandy as the rudder in my life. Then I thought about all the things I’ve done this week – this month, this year, pretty much since I was 17 years old, and I smiled. There’s not a single thing I’ve done in my life – not one wacky decision, not one ridiculous idea, not one thing – I could’ve done without her. I’m fifty fucking years old, and I’m sitting in bars, watching bands, putting out records nobody will ever hear, writing blog entires nobody will ever read, hosting live shows nobody goes to. I drive around the country three times a year for three weeks at a time, looking at stuff and telling stories and meeting people. I come up with some stupid thing to do, and I’ve got a willing partner, an accomplice, a buddy who I know will do it with me.

Some people would call that an enabler, I guess. I just think it’s pretty cool, and I’ll never, ever take it for granted.

So this idea, this “I’m a fuckup and I don’t deserve you” thing? I get it. I got you.

Check out “I Got You” from The 65’s album “Strike Hard,” which we released in 2011. If you buy it from us today, we will donate the profits to Swing Left. But then, check out the entire “I Got You” EP as released in 2013 by Pyhrric Victory Recordings, and buy the whole thing over there, and check out all their other stuff too. You can find them at https://pyrrhicvictoryrecordings.com.

Also, I want to tell you about Swing Left.

Swing Left is a nonprofit that has the goal of flipping the White House, the Senate and the State Houses that have been impacted by republican gerrymandering. They’ve focused on 12 “Super States” where they’re doing all their work, organizing people to write letters and make phone calls to unlikely voters in the battleground states, encouraging them to vote, and raising funds for candidates in key races. They are doing really important work, and we are living at a time that we need really important work done.

The election is 39 days away. And I have this crazy nonsensical existence where I get to do whatever I want. And so every penny of Dromedary Records’ profit on music downloads for the next 39 days will be donated to Swing Left. You can even buy our ENTIRE CATALOG – that’s 41 records in total – for $88.59 (or more, if you like), and almost every penny of that will go right to Swing Left (we do need to put a little aside to pay our bands).

Buy our fucking records. Get some music out of the deal, and I will give your money to Swing Left for you.

Song #33: Tenterhooks – “Helpless”

•September 24, 2020 • 1 Comment

September 24, 2020
Song #33: Tenterhooks – “Helpless”

I mentioned in an earlier entry that at some point around mid-2014, my musical tastes had started to shift. I was listening mostly to fast, loud rock and roll and early punk, and felt some weird compulsion to move the record label in that direction after a few years of putting out just anything I liked. Dromedary had poor distribution, wasn’t getting paid, wasn’t getting much attention at all – but unlike when this happened when I was in my 20s, I wasn’t devastated by it. I just felt like maybe I needed to reimagine the label.

My first go-around with the reimagining thing was mostly all wrong. I decided that the best way to do it was to mothball Dromedary entirely, and start a brand-new label. As I was thinking through the logistics of that, Stuyvesant was putting the finishing touches on their Shmyvesant LP. Brian Musikoff was, in addition to being the band’s bass player, the band’s visual artist, and he was doing the design work for the LP. Of course he was aware of my wrestling with the Dromedary vs. “new label” idea, and he weighed in – fairly – by saying he’d rather Shmyvesant be the first record on my new label than be the last record on my old one. That was the impetus to start the new label, which I called the Sugarblast Music Company.

“Sugarblast” is a great fucking name, I might add, that effectively describes most of what Dromedary has put out. “Music Company” was a better way to describe music releases today, as they’re not all “records” in the traditional sense – in that respect, I’ll probably change Dromedary’s name to “The Dromedary Music Company” or something like that, when I get around to it.

Anyway, the Sugarblast Music Company released three records: Shmyvesant, a WFDU live compilation of bands that played on my radio show, and Meanwhile In Another Part Of Town, by Tenterhooks.

Tenterhooks was the brainchild of Lenny Zenith, who I’ve known for decades and met when he was the singer and guitar player in Jenifer Convertible. Jenifer Convertible were one of my favorite bands in the 90s, an outstanding, noisy pop band that released a couple of great singles on Jim Santo’s Dive Records label (Jim was the other guitarist in the band). Of course I mentioned earlier how badly I wrecked things with Jenifer Convertible by putting Dromedary on indefinite hiatus in the late 90s, leaving them with a finished album and nobody to put it out. Ultimately it came out on a new label that vomited out three records in 1997 and disappeared. One of those records was JenCon’s Wanna Drag?, a 12-song barnburner produced by Wharton Tiers that we were supposed to release on Dromedary in 1996 and then flaked. That record deserved better than it got.

Jenifer Convertible wrote unbelievable pop songs, all four guys in the band were astonishingly good musicians with fantastic songwriting skill. Their music blended the sing-song melodies of Big Star with the swampy, slacker-rock of Pavement into this tight, noisy postpunk that was just one great song after another.

When we rekindled with the band and re-established Dromedary, we agreed with the guys from Jenifer Convertible that we’d do something together – they’re actually listed on the Dromedary website as being part of our roster. However, aside from their contribution to our Make the Load Lighter compilation, their appearance at our CMJ show at Maxwell’s in 2010, and our including their wonderful cover of the Left Banke’s “Pretty Ballerina” on a sampler CD we gave away that same year, we have yet to actually do anything with the band.

But in 2014, when Lenny approached me about putting out music by his new band, Tenterhooks, I jumped at the chance.

Lenny writes songs, all the time, he’s been doing it forever. He’s been making music for 30 years, opened for the likes of Iggy Pop, U2, X and The Replacements, fronted bands based in New Orleans, Detroit, and New York City. Equally inspired by glam, punk, and pop music, he’s got a huge library of influences – like David Rat, Lenny is this underground music staple who’ll drop a top-40 song on you like it was “Sonic Reducer” and you should love it. No pretenses at all. He’ll play punk rock in some shitty hole on the Lower East Side, but then he’ll sing Motown songs at a tribute to the songwriters of the Brill Building, moving effortlessly between those two worlds.

Lenny is trans, and since he transitioned at a young age, he recognized that his experiences could be helpful to other members of the trans community. Lenny talks about his youth, his transition, and his life as a trans musician freely and openly, at some point in his life realizing that his unbelievable confidence and strength and humanness could maybe save a kid’s life someday – or at least help a person to understand that they matter, that their feelings are real, and that they can live their lives as well.

Lenny Zenith (photo: Eva Mueller)

We put out the first Tenterhooks EP, Meanwhile In Another Part Of Town, and Lenny played a few shows with that band. But he’s a busy guy, and between working on his memoir, doing his day job, playing shows and writing music, it was a while before Lenny recorded again. In early 2018, he approached me about putting his next record out on Sugarblast, and though I was happy to put his music out again, by that time, I’d sorta migrated back to Dromedary.

Ultimately, though, Lenny wound up doing something much better than putting out a record with me: he founded XYYX Records, a label focused on providing an avenue for trans, nonbinary, LGBTQ individuals and allies to release their music. He stepped out from behind the band names he’s always been associated with, and released What If The Sun under his own name, and its an excellent pop record. Lenny is an inspiration to everyone who’s fortunate enough to have met him, and continues to use his confidence and his talent to help elevate and support other trans musicians. You should pay attention to what he’s doing with his label.

Though the Tenterhooks record was released on Sugarblast in 2015, we’re moving it to Dromedary Records today, with Lenny’s blessing. If you purchase it today, we’ll donate our proceeds to the LGBT National Help Center.

Also, we should note: ALL the Jenifer Convertible music has been reissued on Jim Santo’s Dive Records label. ALL proceeds from sales of these records go to the ACLU. You should own them all.

Song #32: The Mommyheads – “Needmore, PA”

•September 23, 2020 • Leave a Comment

September 23, 2020
Song #32: The Mommyheads – “Needmore, PA”

You just never know when the work is going to pay off. Might take a decade, and it might happen in Scandinavia.

Flying Suit by The Mommyheads, was far and away the most successful record we had released, in terms of sales. Still is. Nothing else is even close. It wasn’t Copper Blue or anything, but suffice to say that Dromedary operated in the black in 1994 and 1995. We haven’t operated in the black in any other year, except possibly 2020 (though I still have three months to fuck that up).

They worked their asses off, criss-crossing the country and Canada on tour. Adam set up his own booking company and used that to latch the band onto tours with Lisa Loeb, Guided by Voices, Cake and the Posies, playing in front of new audiences that may not have ordinarily heard the band. Each day, he was on the phone, doing interviews with newspapers and arts weeklies in cities where they’d be playing in the coming days. Each afternoon, the band would drop into the local college radio station where they were playing that night. While they were in Connecticut, they managed to take a couple of afternoons in the studio and record their next album. They did 60 shows in 60 days, with only one day off – and they played two shows in Chicago one day to make up for it.

And we sold records. Our distributors were reordering, the band was ordering from us, and we were getting paid. The band was also making money.

When they returned to San Francisco at the end of the tour, we had a successful record that received a ton of press, including a feature article in New York Magazine.

From there, the band released Bingham’s Hole, the album they recorded while on the Flying Suit tour, and hit the road again in 1996. While on that tour, they continued to play songs from Flying Suit, and made sure we knew what cities they’d be in, and what songs they were playing from the album. Because of that, we sold records in 1996. And people started writing, asking for the record with “Spiders” or “Annabelle Ann” or “Worm,” three songs they played a lot from the tour.

I started to understand a bit about how songs resonate with people – they hear something they like, that touches them in some way, and they want to hear it again. When a band plays live, people want them to play their favorite song from the album. When they buy an album, they want it to contain the song they heard the band play live. When the band comes back and play the next year, they still want to hear the song they played last time, from the last album. The Mommyheads did it masterfully, mixing in new songs, unreleased ones, and the old favorites, making sure people knew what album the song was on, and staying at the merch table after the show, meeting and greeting, shaking hands, selling records and t-shirts, making impressions. After two or three stops in a city, they were filling rooms and getting asked onto bigger bills.

So they took the only step that they thought made sense: they signed with Geffen and became a major label band, in the wake of Nirvana and Sonic Youth and ridiculous major label signings like Helmet and St. Johnny and a litany of other tiny bands that suddenly found themselves part of the alt-rock feeding frenzy.

Geffen put the band in the studio with Don Was, a legendary producer probably best known for his dopey hit “Walk The Dinosaur” with his band Was (Not Was), but also with a massive list of production credits that include Iggy Pop, Bob Dylan, Elton John, Bonnie Raitt, Bob Seger, Glenn Frey, Roy Orbison, Willie Nelson, Jackson Browne, Waylon Jennings, Brian Wilson, The Rolling Fucking Stones, Kris Kristofferson…and The Mommyheads. The band did an about face from the funky, boogie-inspired songs of Bingham’s Hole and released a brilliant album of Beatlesque pop – and were abruptly dropped from the label before the album was even released.

The Mommyheads was a pretty masterful pop record, filled with wonderful songs, and the band felt that nobody heard it. There was an abandoned tour, some infighting, and they broke up.

Years later, they reunited to play some songs at a memorial service for the band’s original drummer, who had passed away, and they decided that they enjoyed it – so they released another album, with little fanfare. I accidentally stumbled onto it and rekindled with the band, and we began to hatch plans to release an expanded, remastered version of Flying Suit in 2010.

Meanwhile, some persistent folks in Scandinavia had been contacting the band, trying to convince them that it would be worthwhile for them to tour there. To tour Scandinavia. The band had never been there before, and so it seemed ridiculous that these guys who’d never left the United States, who’d been broken up for more than a decade, should get on a plane and fly across the globe to play shows in a foreign country, when they weren’t even playing shows in America.

But they did it.

And you know what? In Scandinavia, the Mommyheads are fucking rock stars, and they had no idea. But apparently rock fans over there latched onto that Geffen record and it sold really well – and then they sought out the band’s other material as well. The people who convinced them to tour had pulled out all the stops – even releasing a “Greatest Hits” compilation called Finest Specimens (which we released here in the U.S.), pulling material from their previous albums and 7″s, with live versions of tracks from the Geffen record (because Geffen still had the rights).

How popular were they in Scandinavia? One show in Sweden, Adam wasn’t feeling well and lost his voice. They considered playing only songs that Michael sings, and they considered cancelling the show altogether, but ultimately they did something different: they asked the fans if anyone would like to come onstage and sing Adam’s songs.

And people lined up to do it. A guy who sang with the Michael Schenker Group. Another guy who was on the equivalent of American Idol over there. Seriously, it happened, here’s video:

The video credits “Charlie Emm,” but I actually think his name is Karl Martindahl, who was the singer in a Swedish band called Charlie Emm. Martindahl was the runner up in the 2003 season of Fame Factory, an American Idol-type show, and when the song is over, Adam just says “Holy shit!”

After the Finest Specimens record we released two more Mommyheads albums. I’m proud to have released more of their records than any other label. We’re still friends today; they took a break for a while and then started releasing music again – they’ve got a brand-new record out now called New Kings Of Pop that has some great tracks on it, and as of this writing, it’s at #64 on the national college radio charts – probably higher than any of their other records ever charted.

The guys in the Mommyheads all have families, careers, and lives outside the band today. Similar to me, their priorities have evolved from the time we were all in our 20s and trying to make a living at indie rock. But meanwhile, on the other side of the world, kids were buying the stuff, unbeknownst to any of us. You work and you work and you work, and sometimes you don’t even realize people are listening.

The Mommyheads had a track on Bingham’s Hole called “Needmore, PA” that was just a tremendous song, so much so that it was covered beautifully by Tsunami singer Jenny Toomey on one of her records. But her version didn’t include the long build at the end of the song, one of the extended jams that made Bingham’s Hole such a great record (and made the Mommyheads so many fans among the choogling jammy band crowd). The band made some excellent live recordings, and we put one on the Finest Specimens album that got a lot of attention when we put that record out in 2010, so I’ll share it with you here.

If you buy this today, we’ll donate the money to Justice Democrats.

Song #31: Gena Rowlands Band – “Fuckups Of The World Unite”

•September 22, 2020 • Leave a Comment

September 22, 2020
Song #31: Gena Rowlands Band – “Fuckups of the World Unite”

When we put together the Make the Load Lighter compilation, I’d briefly reconnected with Bob Massey, who played in a band called Jettison Charlie back in the day. We had a weird connection because Jettison Charlie did a CD on a label where I had a college internship; if memory serves, Bob may have even taken the label over from its original owners.

When we reconnected, Bob had a band called Gena Rowlands Band, and he offered a track for the compilation. I was drawn to the song “Fuckups of the World Unite” because of the lyrical content – the idea that the protagonist stumbled onto a Bible and read it, and got the message that all us fuckups – weirdos, punks, queers, losers, geeks, people who are marginalized – there’s supposed to be room in heaven for all of us.

I don’t believe in heaven, but I definitely believe there should be room here for all of us, and that we need to lift each other up. To me, any heaven is right here, and we should aspire to make it a place where everyone is welcome and everyone is cared for. And the people who’ve currently hijacked the government by stoking fear and hatred?

Fuck those people.

Anyway, no donation today, I just want you to hear the song. I’m working on a thing.

Song #30: Positive No – “Teenage Waistline”

•September 21, 2020 • Leave a Comment

September 21, 2020
Song #30: Positive No – “Teenage Waistline”

Ruth Bader Ginsburg died this past weekend. I write these entries a couple of days in advance, so it didn’t get much of a mention on this blog over the past couple of days. I got the news while I was sitting at a table at a local bar (outdoors, of course), absentmindedly scrolling on my phone while I should’ve been being more attentive to the people with whom I was sitting, a shitty habit I have and can’t seem to shake. In business I used to refuse to wear a wristwatch for fear of accidentally looking at it during a meeting and insulting the people in the room with me, and now I sit at a table with people I know and like, staring like a zombie at my phone. In the process of being this rude I got this crucial piece of news; I held up the phone and showed it to the people I was with, and then I cried in public.

I’m typically not the kind of person who judges the passage of time by January 1 through December 31 as if there’s a “start” button that somebody mashes on the first day of the year so we can judge the quality of that year based on the things that happen over the next 365 days.

But fuck, 2020 has sucked.

My friend Nick D’Amore made an excellent point in the hours after her passing, about how American democracy is in a sorry state if its very survival hinged on the ability of one frail, elderly person to survive through the election. But the reality is that’s exactly where we’re at, and while we mourn the loss of a giant who did so much to help the marginalized, I think we’re also terrified at the realization that she has been the only thing standing in the way of more marginalization. If you think things are bad now, wait til you lose your healthcare/your reproductive rights/your ability to marry who you love/etc., is how the thought process is working in the immediate wake of this.

For some of us, getting the fuck out isn’t an option. Some of us have careers, family, friendships, roots and such that require we hang around and make a go of it in America, so we either sit back and cocoon about it, or we try and carve out something that’s a little better. So here I am. Somewhere in-between.

Back in 1993 or so, I spent an afternoon with Tom Prendergast, one of the founders of New Jersey’s Bar/None Records label. We talked a bit about how, at the time, record labels could be depended upon to be curators of their artist rosters; you could purchase any record on, say, Cargo, or Matador, Dischord, Simple Machines, Touch & Go, et cetera, and have a good idea of what you were going to get without knowing anything about the artist on the record. Tom felt that Bar/None’s role was to focus on songwriting, so even if the artists on his label were not stylistically similar, they had quality songs in common. It caused me to spend a lot of time pondering what I wanted Dromedary to be.

I had a discussion with a person at Caroline Distribution once, a person I really liked and who always took the time to take my calls, but who was never interested in carrying Dromedary’s records. Each record I’d put out, I would send him a copy to review, for potential distribution. Then I’d call him on the phone, we’d have a lovely conversation, and he’d decline the record. Unlike a lot of other distributors, he was never an asshole about it – quite the contrary, we would almost always have a ten or fifteen-minute discussion where he genuinely expressed interest in what was going on, what music I was listening to, how things were going. And then he’d say, “no thanks.”

So one day I asked him point blank, “What am I going to have to do to get you to take one of my records?”

And he responded, matter-of-factly: “Put out a Superchunk record.”

His point, of course, was that nobody knew the artists on Dromedary, so he had little incentive to carry the titles in his catalog. My point was that our records consistently got excellent reviews in all the important zines, and maybe if people could actually find the fucking things in stores, we might sell a few copies.

My goal was never to put out a Superchunk record, it was to document cool independent power pop and noise pop bands that nobody knew. The “bands that nobody knew” part was the whole point of the thing, to me. Superchunk already had someone to put out their records. Stuyvesant didn’t. So I put out records by bands nobody knows, and then I fight to get people to pay attention. That is how I curate Dromedary.

But while I was talking to bands I liked, asking them if they might be interested in doing a record on Dromedary, because nobody knew them and nobody knew us and we could be anonymous together, something I never really considered in those early days was who was in the band.

1990s indie rock, much like indie rock today, was pretty often a bunch of straight white guys playing guitars. And while even in the 1990s there were certainly bands on Dromedary that were not just straight white guys playing guitars, it was mostly that, and it also mostly never occurred to me. I was trying to elevate music that was marginalized, but wasn’t doing anything special to elevate musicians who were marginalized.

When I was older, and revived Dromedary in 2010, that fact was very much at the forefront of my thoughts. It didn’t always work the way I wanted, but I found that asking the question “Can we try not to be just a bunch of white guys with guitars?” at least made me look in directions that maybe I hadn’t previously looked.

Part of the issue, of course, is that I’m a straight white guy. Also, I’m an old straight white guy, and there’s a shit ton of ageism in underground music, so it’s not so easy to find younger bands that want to work with Dromedary in the first place. But it’s most definitely been in the forefront of my mind to be more inclusive with Dromedary’s roster (and also when I put together live shows, and on my radio program). Tiny labels – the tiniest ones, like Dromedary – have the greatest responsibility to be inclusive, I think, because it’s little labels like Dromedary that provide that first opportunity for a lot of bands that are just getting started. We are gatekeepers for everything that comes after us, and if we’re not paying attention, we’re part of the problem.

Plus, it makes Dromedary a better label, it makes the shows we do more exciting, and it adds richness and diversity to my radio show.

As a kid, I played piano for twelve years, and participated in a bunch of youth competitions and recitals in that time. White boys were few and far between. All the best musicians I knew were female, or of color. All of them. I was good, but they were all better than me. And yet when I got into high school, everyone I knew in a band was a white boy. I remember thinking “Where did all the girls go?” The only thing I could think was that somewhere along the line, their ambitions to play music got squashed. Why?

Recently, there have been a rash of examples of record labels mistreating and marginalizing women, and more examples of venues marginalizing artists of color. It’s infuriating, because we’re supposed to be lifting each other up, and here we are, part of the same problem that we read about in the mainstream entertainment business every day, and we’re supposed to be so much better than that. And we’re not, even at the level of small indie labels.

In the middle of this, shining like a lighthouse beacon in a storm of shit, is Positive No. Positive No is led by a dynamic, powerful woman named Tracy Wilson who, despite the fact that she relocated to Virginia, has strong roots in New Jersey. She thrived in this scene as the singer in the emo band Dahlia Seed, released compelling solo music under the name Ringfinger, worked at a couple of important area record stores, and for a couple of notable indie rock record labels and distributors during the heyday of alt/indie rock (including the aforementioned Caroline Distribution).

Introduced to me by my pal Every Show Joe, their music is fantastic, melodic and powerful pop, with Tracy’s unique voice providing expressiveness and dynamics. Every song is well thought-out, and in a lot of ways, this writing exercise I’m in the middle of is motivated by Tracy’s writing. When Positive No releases music, Tracy writes about the songs – describes how they came together, what she was thinking when she wrote each one, why the arrangements are the way they are. Her windows into the creative process exist independently of commerce – I’ve never gotten the feeling from Tracy that she felt her music wasn’t worth the kind of scrutiny that “popular” artists receive, that her music was any less legitimate than, say, REM or Pearl Jam or whoever. She writes about her music as if every music fan in the world wants to read it, because in her mind – and in mine – record sales have absolutely nothing to do with artistic legitimacy. What Tracy has to say is important, so she says it. I love that. Her approach made me feel better about Dromedary Records in the same way Steve Albini telling me 25 years ago that it didn’t matter if a Dromedary release sold 50 copies or 50,000 – what mattered was whether it was good. I have a mountain of respect for Tracy, as a musician, a songwriter, an intellect, and as the kind of road warrior that’s been around the block and experienced life. She’s got stories. There’s no greater compliment I know how to pay than “she’s got stories.” Life is for living; Tracy lives it, and she knows how to talk about it in a way that makes people want to listen.

So when Tracy asked me if I’d be interested in releasing a Positive No record, it checked a shitload of boxes for me.

Positive No at the Mercury Lounge in NYC, August 25, 2017, playing a benefit for WFDU

Tracy had purchased the Joy Cleaner Easter Tuesday lathe cut we’d released, and she and Kenny Close, the band’s excellent guitar player, liked the format. We had just begun to explore the medium of lathe cut records, which were recommended to me by Joe Pugsley (whose Pyrrhic Victory record label has released a number of them). We’ve put out nine of them now, with more on the way, but Positive No was just our second. They embraced the medium, created wonderful visual art to go with it, we released two fantastic songs, pressed a limited number of copies, and they sold out within two days of making them available for preorder. It reinvigorated Dromedary, got me fired up about continuing to explore this new format, incorporating visual art into the process in ways we hadn’t done before, and challenging bands to produce a killer record with serious time limitations. And, as has been the case with the compilations we’ve put out, it’s given us the ability to expand the number of artists we can work with under our tiny budget, which lets us expand our palette of music.

Here’s the “A” track from our lathe-cut with Positive No, “Teenage Waistline”. If you buy the download for whatever amount, we will donate our share of the proceeds to the Girls Rock Camp Foundation. The Girls Rock Camp Foundation is a nonprofit organization dedicated to generating support and funding for Girls Rock Camps across the United States. You should learn more about what Girls Rock Camps are and what they do, because they’re fucking awesome. This will be the last of these entries that isn’t devoted specifically to an election-related endeavor, but I have a feeling that if Ruth Bader Ginsburg knew what Girls Rock Camp was, she’d approve.

Song 29: Flash Flood – “Autopilot”

•September 20, 2020 • Leave a Comment

September 20, 2020
Song #29: Flash Flood – “Autopilot”

“Last night I turned twenty-nine
Crossing the Continental Divide
Under the moon, over the snow like a dream
I was drinking a Coke, and listening to Seam”

– Toast – “Continental”

There’s a scene in the film version of High Fidelity that’s supposed to be the long comic payoff, the big investment you make in a character throughout the whole film, where the script gets flipped for the big punchline. Like the “Clown Joke” of movies, High Fidelity – at least the film – is a long con disguised as a hipster love/self-discovery story.

The film is really only about one thing: establishing Jack Black’s Barry Judd character as an asshole and a fuckup, a loser that does nothing but irritate and abuse throughout the entire film, only to take the stage with his band Sonic Death Monkey and play against type, inexplicably launching into a soulful version of “Let’s Get it On.” The moral: don’t doubt your friends.

There are about 100 differences in the character development of the High Fidelity film and Brian Musikoff’s recording of Seam’s “Autopilot,” but the payoff was the same. Though Brian is most definitely not an asshole or a fuckup (conversely there’s not a person on the planet that doesn’t love him), and it certainly isn’t a surprise that he can play music (he was the bass player in Stuyvesant for ages, and before that the bass player in Friends, Romans, Countrymen, and sat in with countless other bands) – I knew he was a solid musician.

But having never seen him get out front and do a musical project from soup to nuts, by himself, when he said he wanted to contribute a track to the covers compilation, I didn’t know what I was going to get.

I should preface this.

I’m tightly drawn to Seam, for a number of reasons. There are three experiences in particular that resonate with me.

First, my lying on the floor of the back office of my college radio station, lights off, Seam’s “Days of Thunder” 7″ playing at full volume as I contemplated the enormity of the future.

Next, the lyric from the above song, written by Jon Eckstrom of Toast, the band I mentioned earlier that I desperately wanted to work with but never did. The song is a slow, melodic ballad about being lonely on the road, far from home, the protagonist contemplating time zones and singing “I can’t wait to tell the same time as you.” The idea of the song, softly moving forward, written in the vein of Seam’s slow, emotional gut-wrenchers, actually using Seam to establish its mood, was a mind-blower to me, and “listening to Seam,” as a result, became a way to describe – in three words – a complex set of emotions for which there’s no real description. But if I thought of myself as “listening to Seam,” I knew what I meant.

Finally, the album Are You Driving Me Crazy?, which was actually released in the summer of 1995 (and not in 1993). I was, at the time, beginning to straddle this weird line between a developing career and a receding coolness. I was never good at balancing those two things when I was young, it was always “either/or” in my mind – either I could own an indie record label or I could have a semi-lucrative career. Either I could be a shorthaired executive in a business suit or I could be a longhaired rock and roll guy in jeans and a t-shirt. No in-between.

New Years’ Eve of 1995, I figured it out, for about 30 minutes. We were having a party, our first stab at a social life after giving birth to our first baby boy at the end of August. Sandy had the house fixed up just so, our Christmas decorations still out, the baby’s food and sleep schedule set up so that we could have a houseful, and maybe indulge a little, without having to worry about baby duty.

It was almost time for Ryan to go to bed for the night, the house was warm and the lights were dim, the Christmas tree lighting most of the downstairs of our small home. I held Ryan to my chest as I stood in the living room window, watching for arriving guests as Ryan nodded off while I danced with him slowly, Are You Driving Me Crazy? playing through to the end before I softly walked my sleeping baby upstairs and lay him down in his crib.

Brian Musikoff says “I want to cover a Seam song” and he is treading in a super-personal area, as those are memories that are seared right into my soul, and even though he’d be choosing a track from the band’s 1993 album The Problem With Me, if he fucked it up I’d have a blemish on a band that, for me, can’t be blemished.

Turns out he nailed it.

He chose “Autopilot,” the original recording of which has no drums. Brian recruited Tom Barrett to play drums on his recording, which lent some backbone to a song that, in its original state, has none. Brian’s singing voice worked similarly to Sooyoung Park’s, soft and almost in the background behind the guitars. Like Seam, the strange balance between loud and quiet was perfect in the song.

Once again, a lesson in the thing: don’t doubt your friends.

There were other albums from 1993 that weren’t represented on the album. Perfect Teeth by Unrest, Robot World by Bailter Space, and One Sock Missing by The Grifters are three of my favorite albums of all-time. I loved Today’s Active Lifestyles, by Polvo. Sebadoh’s Bubble and Scrape was another. Outstanding albums by Guided by Voices, Scrawl, Sloan, The Lemonheads, American Music Club, Juliana Hatfield Three, Built to Spill, the Red House Painters, Afghan Whigs, Stereolab, Swirlies, Tiger Trap, Swervedriver, Sugar, Urge Overkill, The Muffs, Brainiac – there are plenty of records out there that are still left to cover for our 30th anniversary in two years.

Maybe I should think about another compilation album.

This is the last track from From ’93 Til Infinity that I’m going to cover as part of this week’s writing. I’m doing these anecdotes virtually 100% just to keep my head above water as the election starts to get uglier. I’m trying to keep my brain occupied. But I also figure if you stumble upon this while I’m writing it, let’s raise some money for something good. So for the last day, this week, anybody who buys a song, songs, or the entire compilation album, we’ll donate the cash to Vote Forward.

And please check out Vote Forward and consider writing some letters to an unlikely voter in a swing state, to persuade them to get to the polls.

Here’s “Autopilot.”

Song #28: Jean Homme & the Broken Telomeres – “Radio”

•September 19, 2020 • 2 Comments

September 19, 2020
Song #28: Jean Homme & the Broken Telomeres – “Radio”

What a pain in the ass Jim Santo is.

Jim was/is the guitar player in the band Jenifer Convertible, but we know one another from about ten different versions of one another’s lives – when I was a college radio Music Director, Jim hyped his band T’ang S’dang to me. When Jim was a writer for Alternative Press or The Musician’s Exchange (where he used a pseudonym), I hyped Dromedary bands to him. He worked for the first company to try and bring music to the internet. He played guitar in a band I signed and then unceremoniously dumped. I paid to see his bands play, as a fan. I helped sell some family sports memorabilia. He writes record reviews, so I’m always bugging him about that. He designed this website. He is a very, very good friend and an excellent musician and writer.



Asking Jenifer Convertible to contribute a track to the compilation was a little bit scary, I’ll admit. In the 1990s, we put Dromedary on a lengthy hiatus over some combination of anxiety, stress, frustration and anger. I wrote all about it in this blog – hell, the whole purpose of this blog was to tell that story, and get it out of me. The day we decided to shut Dromedary, it was like living in a low-rent High Fidelity ripoff film, with me playing the role of Jason Segel playing the role of John Cusack, and Sandy playing the role of Janeane Garofalo playing the role of Janeane Garofalo but, like, a device film, entirely set inside a car (except for occasional rest stops where some dialogue takes place while the actors buy Subway or feed the baby):

ACT ONE: tense, frustrated 20-something married owners of insignificant indie record label sit in traffic and express anxiety over the work and cost involved with their two simultaneous planned releases

Jenifer Convertible, when we were all young.

ACT TWO: While drinking Diet Cokes and eating Hostess Cupcakes, owners listen to the first record they released, which, despite being awful, was a lot of fun to make and yielded a series of excellent stories told over a soundtrack of bad ’90s funk-o-metal and probably that Third Eye Blind song

ACT THREE: Brooding label guy realizes he’s not happy, and needs to grow up and devote his life to his family, cut his hair and put on a tie, and leave this bullshit life behind, the last, soft, squishy corner of his soul turning slowly to plastic as he drives into the sunset, Janes Addiction or Steely Dan or Andy Gibb playing on the stereo; the ending is supposed to be happy

What Act Four needed to be, of course, was the two very real bands that had finished recording their albums and had their master tapes and artwork waiting for me to return from said vacation, only to be told that their record label had vanished. Which is a big deal even when your record label is virtually nonexistent anyway.

Since the guys from Jenifer Convertible were kind enough to forgive me for leaving them label-less after they’d spent what was then big bucks with the excellent producer/engineer Wharton Tiers, recording an album I never released, I asked them if they’d be interested in getting the band back together, and recording a song for this comp, maybe even something by Teenage Fanclub, maybe “Radio.”

I know I wrote earlier that Dan Smith is the only person I asked to record a specific song, but I’m now calling an audible on the story, because “Radio” was exactly the song I wanted to hear them play. So I must have asked them to cover it; it would be too coincidental for them to have chosen that song without me prodding.

Jenifer Convertible had a song called “Rewind,” which they released as the B-side of their “Speedracer” single in 1993 or so, and I thought it was the best Teenage Fanclub song that Teenage Fanclub didn’t write. I thought it would be cool for them to cover a TFC song from Thirteen, and we all know that “Radio” is the best song on that album.

They couldn’t get either of the two drummers the band has had – the jazz-influenced, tasteful Andy Moore or the hard-hitting powerhouse Eddie Siino (who, sadly, passed away a few years ago), so they recruited Paul Andrew, then of Overlake. Brian Musikoff of Stuyvesant sat in on bass.

And of course, because Andy or Eddie couldn’t play drums, and Brian played bass, the band wasn’t really Jenifer Convertible. So Jim gave them a different name. And of course it couldn’t be something sensible – it had to be Jean Homme & the Broken Telomeres, because Jim Santo is a pain in the ass. I don’t even know what the name is supposed to mean.

God, I love that guy.

Here’s “Radio,” by half of Jenifer Convertible, from the compilation album. And of course, we’re donating all the cash from today’s massive sales to Vote Forward, because we want people to vote. After yesterday’s awful news, it’s even more important. RIP, RBG.

Song #27: Riel – “Noel, Jonah & Me”

•September 18, 2020 • Leave a Comment

September 18, 2020
Song #27: Riel – “Noel, Jonah & Me”

The Spinanes’ Manos was a landmark album for me; with the exception of Mecca Normal I never really got behind electric guitar/bass duos as I prefer the full sound of a band. I first heard “Spitfire” on Jerry Rubino’s show on WFDU, and after he back-announced the track, I added a new “band” to my list of records to buy. It was only after I kicked back with the liner notes that I learned that Spinanes were just Rebecca Gates and Scott Plouf. Gates quickly became one of my favorite guitar players – her expressive playing and her complex chord structures created such a rich sound that it more than compensated for the lack of a bass. Her voice was also perfect for the music they played, often quiet and melodic against these punchy, staccato bursts the guitar and drums created. I did love that album, and put it on the list of records I’d hoped someone would choose to cover for the compilation.

German Loretti is a drummer from Argentina who played on David Rat’s The United Hates record. We met on Facebook during the long back-and-forth between David and I over the release of that album, and German shared with me some of the music he was creating with his band, Riel. Riel was just German on drums and Mora on guitar and vocals, and at the time, he was working hard to keep their music simple – very few effects, no overdubs at all, just Mora’s guitar and German’s drums backing her voice. Just like the Spinanes. I liked their music a lot, and really wanted to work with them somehow, but it seemed ridiculous for me to put out a record by a band from Argentina who I could not help in any way at all, from all the way up in the United States.

It always struck me that David Rat was a drummer, and yet German played most – if not all – of the drums on the album. I think David viewed himself more as a conductor or a coach, as the musicians supporting him on that album were superb. He was wise to let German play; he’s an excellent musician; David’s playing style was much more swampy and not as suited to the music on the record.

Riel

I don’t recall how Riel settled on a Spinanes track for the compilation, whether it was their own idea or if I prompted them, but I do recall that their choice of song was entirely their own. Manos has some amazing songs that are among my favorites today, including the aforementioned “Spitfire,” the fantastic title track, the aggressive “Grand Prize,” and a song that I count among the very best of the year, “Uneasy.” But Riel chose “Noel, Jonah, and Me,” a chunkier song with a heavier riff – perhaps that’s why.

There have been a few times that Riel have made it to the United States on tour, but we still haven’t had the opportunity to meet in person. They’ve made three excellent albums and three EPs, and it’s been fun to watch them progress and evolve.

Here’s their cover of “Noel, Jonah, and Me.” All week this week we’re writing about the compilation album, and any proceeds from sales of that album will be donated to Vote Forward, a nonprofit organization working to boost turnout among unlikely voters who are traditionally underrepresented in the electorate.

Song #26: D. Smith – “Fuck And Run”

•September 17, 2020 • Leave a Comment

September 17, 2020
Song #26: D. Smith – “Fuck And Run”

Liz Phair’s Exile in Guyville was pretty much everyone’s favorite record of 1993.

Not mine. Mine was Bettie Serveert’s Palomine. But Guyville was a close second, and “Fuck and Run” and “Mesmerizing” were the two main reasons why.

When Liz Phair came to Maxwell’s on that tour, Rich won a pair of tickets by calling in to WFMU. Of course I had to work that night, and so he took Sandy. While I sat in the office (I worked in the technical department of a cellphone company at the time, occasionally working the nightshift), Sandy would sneak the occasional phone call on our super-cool, company-paid cellphone. “Penn Jillette is standing in front of Rich and he can’t see” was one call. “Fucking KENNEDY is here” was another. They got more drunk and I got more pissed as the night went on, fully understanding that I was missing the beginning of a great artist’s career, that night when everyone there could say “I saw Liz Phair on her first tour, in a room with 100 people.”

Her career took a different path, but Exile in Guyville remained a beast for us, long after it came out, eventually surpassing Palomine in my eyes as the best record of 1993 – and one of the best of the decade.

Here’s how brilliant Dan Smith is.

For the compilation album, I sent each band a list of records that came out in 1993, and just asked them to tell me what song they wanted to do, so that no bands would be duplicated. I’d cross the band off the list, A.V. Undercover-style, as people told me who they’d cover. Sometimes, as in the case of Penguins Kill Polar Bears or Tiger Saw, they’d make a suggestion that wasn’t on my list, which was even better.

In one case, though, and only one case, I called someone and asked them specifically to do one song. I asked Dan Smith to record “Fuck and Run.”

I still remember it. Dan was having trouble deciding what to cover. He did shitloads of covers, but they usually seemed pretty spontaneous – he’d do songs he liked, without caring much about whether or not the song was cool, but for whatever reason, he seemed to be dragging his heels on picking a cover.

Dan and me (and Sean from Stuyvesant) at Maxwell’s, both pretty drunk. Right after this picture was taken, Dan tried to climb up my back and fell, landing flat on his back. Photo by James Damion.

Late one morning, I was leaving for an appointment, and as I pulled my car onto Route 80, I called Dan.

“Hello, sir,” he said. Dan called me “sir” then. No clue why.

“You need to cover ‘Fuck and Run’ by Liz Phair. That’s your song.”

“Okay.” We talked for a while longer, and I hung up. I spent my day, doing whatever thing I was doing. I got home, had dinner. I went downstairs to my office, to check my email, and while I was puttering around on the internet, I got the Microsoft Office chime.

I looked, and there was an email from Dan, with an attachment. “Fuck_and_run.wav.”

I figured it was a demo, or something like that. It wasn’t. It was a completely recorded, finished and mastered version of “Fuck and Run,” for the compilation. Dan learned it, brought in his friend Bobby Diamond to play drums, arranged it, recorded it, and had it mastered. In a few hours, from start to finish.

It was brilliant. Brilliantly arranged. Brilliantly performed. Brilliant in that he didn’t change the lyrics one bit, so he sang “I want a boyfriend” and “The kind of guy who makes love ’cause he’s in it,” which changed the entire dynamic of the song.

It’s a ridiculously good cover, and one of my favorite tracks that Dan has ever done – and I’m a really big D. Smith fan.

So here it is. And like the rest of this week, if you buy it, the compilation, or any of its other tracks while I’m writing about them, we’ll donate the cash to Vote Forward, a nonprofit organization working to boost voter turnout among unlikely voters who are traditionally underrepresented in the electorate.

Enjoy.