File Under: From raw, gutbucket blues to soul, rock and pop with a similar unspoiled spirit
Based In: Oxford, Mississippi
Like the Delta bluesmen whose records he started Fat Possum to release, Matthew Johnson is part of a dying breed. Rock owes much of its early legacy to eccentric, mostly European-descended label owners who brought rhythm & blues out of regions and cities defined by racial segregation – places like Mississippi and Chicago – to a broader audience. For these often-iconoclastic entrepreneurs, selling records sometimes meant changing with the times: Sun’s Sam Phillips eventually turned to white artists like Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash; Capricorn’s Phil Walden swore off R&B after the death of Otis Redding, only to find success again with the Allman Brothers and, decades later, the likes of Cake, 311 and Widespread Panic. Chess’s Leonard Chess, Atlantic’s Jerry Wexler – those guys are gone now.
Founded in 1991 with $4,000 in leftover student loan money, Fat Possum stood out from the beginning for its unpolished brand of blues, made mostly by troubled, rarely-touring artists like R.L. Burnside, Junior Kimbrough and T-Model Ford. A distribution relationship with Walden and Capricorn helped the label reach more record-store shelves – but not enough. In 1996, Epitaph rescued Fat Possum from bankruptcy, later enabling the label to expand into R&B with soul great Solomon Burke’s Grammy-winning 2002 album, Don’t Give Up on Me. Though Fat Possum has since parted ways with the L.A. punk imprint, Johnson’s label has continued to stretch its horizons, venturing into garage-punk with the Black Keys, baroque folk-rock with Andrew Bird and beyond, into the fuzzy indie-rock of Dinosaur Jr. and the cosmopolitan anguish of the Walkmen, to name a few. Dusting off vintage releases by Townes Van Zandt, Al Green and most recently T. Rex, the label has also built up a formidable stable of reissues. At the same time, its lineup of younger bands is one of the most impressive around, including Wavves, Smith Westerns, Yuck and Tennis.
Once known for living almost as hard as the bluesmen on his label – “I couldn’t quite determine whether he was an erudite redneck or a degenerate preppie,” author Jay McInerney wrote in a 2002 New Yorker profile – Johnson today comes across as both disarmingly frank and tantalizingly cryptic. The first time we speak, his answers start tersely, almost warily, then develop into spellbinding if elliptical yarns before he cuts off abruptly to meet with someone about a heating problem. The second time, he’s in Los Angeles, hoping to have a hand in the soundtrack for a TV show he can’t name yet. “It’s so crude and foul and drug-addled, I had to be involved,” he says. Fat Possum bands are all over the hype blogs these days, but Johnson explains he doesn’t keep track of music publications. “I’m like post-literate,” he offers. “I don’t read any of that shit.”
eMusic’s Marc Hogan talked to Johnson about how his label got where it is and where it might be headed.
On Fat Possum’s shift toward indie rock bands:
All our original roster is dead – R.L., Junior and the old blues guys – so we had to change directions. They were dying. I mean, we’re all dying, but they were on this fast track to death when we signed them.
On whether the current roster bears similarities to those old bluesmen:
I think a lot. Especially someone like Wavves. He’s just real good at causing incidents.
On how Fat Possum got into the business of reissues:
It started probably with Townes Van Zandt. I knew his son, and the whole thing was a mess. He’d never been paid. They had sued the Tomato label, which was in bankruptcy. And so we bought it out of bankruptcy and were able to distribute it. We still have some issues in Europe, which we’re trying to resolve now. But yeah, that worked really well.
People were like, “What are you gonna do…jump around when these blues guys die?” And I was like, “I don’t know, but I’m sure we’ll figure it out.” A lot of great labels started in either jazz or blues and then kind of evolved. That’s what Atlantic did. That’s what a lot of the other ones did. At least I didn’t have to come up with anything original. I could just follow the old methods.
On how he finds talent:
I have Stephen Pope, who was Jay Reatard’s bass player, as sort of an adviser. So we call that Tennessee Stephen. And then I’ve got Mississippi Steven, who’s really good here, too – Steven Bevilaqua. And the rest of the office helps, too. So between everyone we try to come up with, like, “This is really good, but it’s not ever going to work. This is really good and it could work.”
I wish there was a system, like, “OK, well, this is good, we’ve looked into them and we’ve checked it out,” and all that. But it’s more like, “OK, I’ve always wanted to see this band, they’re playing tonight and they don’t have a deal.” I grew up working for some of these guys like [Ace Records founder] Johnny Vincent and [Capricorn Records founder] Phil Walden, and I had a bunch of conversations with [Sun Records founder] Sam Phillips, and I don’t really cut it like these guys did. I can sit around and e-mail people on a BlackBerry or bullshit like that. Thank God the bar’s been lowered.
On the challenges of A&R:
This band Thomas Function I really fucking liked. It’s like, “This is great, they’re from the South, they’re fucking rejects – I get them.” And I couldn’t make someone play the record at gunpoint. I’m wrong so often. But recently things kind of went my way a little bit. We really try to get the very best bands that we possibly can, and do the best job we can with them. Sometimes it works out and sometimes it doesn’t. It seems like Tennis and Smith Westerns and Yuck all kind of got on at the point that the forces aligned.
On why he’s drawn to self-destructive types:
‘Cause they’re the ones we always wind up with at the end of the night anyway.
A few words on some Fat Possum bands:
He was a just really nutty guy. [New York Times music critic and early Fat Possum guiding force] Robert Palmer said he was the type of person to yell fire in a crowded theater or something. Things weren’t going that great for him. He was one of the most self-destructive people I could find to hang out with. So I tried to really take it all in.
When they left, we were a very small operation. They’re still a part of our life. We wish we were a part of theirs. Dan’s like the only guy that can really play Junior Kimbrough.
They were harder than the Black Keys, or Band of Horses, or the [Al Green label] Hi catalog to get. It took like a year before they would return my e-mails. Which, you know, they weren’t being assholes. They were like 18. “Who is this guy that keeps stalking us?” – I’m sure that’s what they were like. But I just thought that they were really fucking good.
This kid John Barrett, from Bass Drum of Death – he’s one of the worst employees we’ve ever had, but he’s a really great guy and a great guitar player and a good singer. He’s like world champion at taking cigarette breaks. But he played me that first record. I thought that was really fucking good. We wind him [Wavves 'Nathan Williams] up, put him on the runway, and see what happens.
I think they’re at a really good place. I think the next record’s gonna be even bigger.
I met with Mark Fried at Spirit Music. We actually got along really well, and then between the both of us, we came up with some marketing ideas that I think were good. Neon Indian did a cover of [a T. Rex song]. Smith Westerns did a track. Other people I’m really excited about that I don’t want to tell you. It’ll jinx it.