[Introduce yourself to Don Giovanni's roster with a free 11-track sampler, featuring Screaming Females, Waxahatchee, Shellshag and more.]
A handful of the most impressive labels in the history of American independent rock have focused very closely on a single local scene: Dischord in Washington, D.C., Dangerhouse in Los Angeles, Sub Pop (for a while, at least) in Seattle. That list has a new contender: Don Giovanni Records, which, for the past decade, has been the voice of the underground rock scene of deeply unglamorous New Brunswick, New Jersey. Founded in 2003 by Joseph Steinhardt and Zach Gajewski to release a single by their own band Talk Hard, Don Giovanni has built itself up, slowly and steadily, into an indie-rock powerhouse, releasing records by bands like Screaming Females, The Ergs! and Waxahatchee, and building a national following for the scene Steinhardt and Gajewski grew up in.
“We never planned on being a label,” Steinhardt laughs. “But as soon as we put out our own 7-inch, some other friends of ours in a local band wanted to put one out, and we said, ‘If we sell ours and get our money back, we’ll put out yours.’ And it still kind of works that way, even though we’re bigger in scale. When we put out the Ergs!’ record” — their 2005 album dorkrockcorkrod — “we thought it was the end of the label. It was our first full-length album, and we figured if our money goes down to zero, we’ll just stop. We did it on vinyl. At first it didn’t really sell. And slowly, after a while, it blew up.”
The label’s founders both have day jobs that have nothing to do with music — Gajewski works in publishing, Steinhardt is a graduate student — which allows them to put the label’s profits back into releasing more projects. “I think, honestly, Zach and I believe in the New Brunswick scene more than anything,” Steinhardt says. “A lot of the Don Giovanni bands might have been bad financial decisions at first, but in the long run, that focus has paid off. We don’t think of what’s going to make us money, we think of what’s going on right now in our scene, and how we can document that.”
Don Giovanni’s roster is very much a community — the bands have mostly known one another for many years, and wave the flag for one another. (“Everyone on the label is a little obsessed with Brick Mower and Black Wine,” Steinhardt says.) Both of the founders are still in Don Giovanni-associated bands: Gajewski plays bass in the headbanging punk band Nuclear Santa Claust, and Steinhardt occasionally plays under the name Modern Hut. “It’s a really a solo project,” he notes, “but there’s a lot of people who keep it going, because I’m honestly not very talented. My friend Marissa from Screaming Females is really what made it happen — I’ve actually been working on a Modern Hut record with her for, like, six years.”
Since 2008, Don Giovanni has also put together a big concert for its bands every February. The annual showcase has expanded to increasingly large venues; this year’s showcase was a three-day, 15-band blowout. “I always liked the idea of really big shows,” Steinhardt says, “and when I started it, none of our bands had ever played places like Maxwell’s. I thought if we could do a show there that was successful, those bands could get on the radar at those venues. We did, and it sold out, and it’s just kept growing — every year we try to push the limit.”
We asked Steinhardt to tell us a bit about the history of Don Giovanni’s relationship with half a dozen of its most significant artists.
I was a huge, huge fan of [Waxahatchee singer/songwriter Katie Crutchfield's former band] P.S. Eliot — they were an incredible band. They were from Alabama, but they were a Don Giovanni band that wasn't on Don Giovanni. We just didn't do their records, because they weren't local. Katie and her sister moved to Brooklyn, and they did this project called Bad Banana. I e-mailed Katie and told her I wanted to do a Bad Banana record. By that time, they were barely around, but she told me, "But I'm doing this new thing, Waxahatchee." We put out their first album [American Weekend] in January of last year, and no one cared — and by the end of the year, it was like the biggest record ever. You don't know what's going to happen, sometimes. We would do records like that if they never picked up, but it's always really nice when they do.
They're one of the most recent bands to join the label, and a band that sort of came into the scene through the label. They played with Shellshag and Screaming Females a lot; I bought their demo at one of their shows, and I just really liked it. Until this year, we really only worked with local bands. But I booked them on shows, and at some point I told them, "Just so you know, we would do your record if you want — I like your band." They got back to me when they were doing a record, and it was just a natural fit: They fit with all our ideals, they fit with all our bands. They're great people.
I'm working on a Ph.D. right now, and I live in Ithaca, but before I was in Ithaca I was in Syracuse. And in Syracuse, I met this guy Josh who moved to Amherst and was in California X, and was going to put out their record. I heard them and I thought, "I love that band." I booked them for shows — I usually book bands I like, it's not, like, a label thing. Josh left the band on really friendly terms, but he wasn't putting out their record, and they were kind of in a quandary. I talked to Zach about it. We'd kind of cemented our "only doing local bands" thing, but we thought, "Fuck it, the record's awesome, it's the kind of thing we'd do anyway, we can help the band, let's do it." And then it was easy. They're part of the scene anyway — Waxahatchee played the first California X show.
Big Eyes have just been around our scene forever. I met Kate when she was 14, and when she was 18 she started a band called Cheeky, who were maybe the best band ever when they were around. We were supposed to do their album — there's even a feature on YouTube about the making of the album for our label — and then they broke up and didn't finish it. I said, "Kate, let me do your next band," and that was Big Eyes. They relocated to Seattle at a certain point, which is partially why we're not doing their records any more. But there's no bad blood. I love them. I'm booking a Don Giovanni show for them right now.
They were one of my favorite bands in New Brunswick, and we didn't work with them until their third album because they were doing their own records. I thought that was really cool — I love it when bands put out their own records. Then, one day, a mutual friend of ours played matchmaker: "You know, Screaming Females really like your label, Joe, they want you to put out their records…" And he told them, "You know, Joe really likes you guys…" So we talked, and I think I said something like that I was going to kill myself if they didn't let me put out the next record, and thankfully they didn't call my bluff on that. At the time, for all I knew, that would be all we ever did: Most of our bands, at that point, did one record and broke up and that was that. But I can go back and see that that was a huge thing — we've ended up working with them for six years. A lot of the way Don Giovanni functions is because of working with Screaming Females and figuring out how to do new things: licensing, royalties, booking agents, all these things we didn't know about and they didn't know about, and we've figured everything out together. I don't think Marissa realizes her own talent sometimes. There are things she can do so effortlessly that she's so modest about. Everyone thinks she's really serious and scary, but people don't know that she's really silly and funny.