File under: Blistering punk, scrappy garage, other assorted oddities
Based In: Memphis, Tennessee
Memphis label Goner Records was born out of – and has been sustained by – happy accidents. The first occurred in 1993 at the second-annual Garage Shock festival in Bellingham, Wash. Japanese rockers Guitar Wolf showed up to the fest uninvited, accompanying fellow Japanese bands Jackie & the Cedrics and the 220.127.116.11′s (the latter of which found fame some 10 years later performing in Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill Vol. 1). As the story goes, the Garage Shock organizers told Guitar Wolf they could play before the scheduled bands went on, but a miscommunication led Guitar Wolf to believe they were merely sound-checking. Nevertheless, Goner founder Eric Friedl was immediately smitten. “It was really chaotic,” he remembers. “Pure will over talent, but they looked so cool doing it. Despite the fact that everything was messed up, it was completely rock ‘n’ roll. They were unstoppable! We faxed back and forth a few times, but I wanted to put out an album and they thought I only wanted a single. I think. I’m still not sure. So Goner and Guitar Wolf operated on miscommunication and chaos, and it turned out great for both of us in the end.”
Fast forward 18 years, and Goner is arguably the top dog in the garage/punk game. But whereas in the early ’90s, Friedl was insistent upon releasing the trashiest stuff he could find (his own band, Oblivians, included), he and his crew have lately been expanding their scope, opening up Goner to new sounds. “After a while, there were other labels that were even more gonzo in their approach to putting out no-fi records,” Friedl says. “And to be truthful, I burned out on that as an aesthetic. If it’s the Pagans or High Rise or the Gories, it makes sense, but if you’re actually a punk band that goes out of your way to record yourself badly, it just won’t sound right. So after we started up the store in 2004, we could put out things that we actually liked that shared our underdog and straightforward attitude, whether that be Quintron or Box Elders or Carbonas or Harlan T Bobo. To us, it all makes sense. Hopefully we can grow and diversify and keep doing what we’re doing now on a bigger level. We don’t have to be huge, but we’d like to do more for acts and for ourselves. If we can’t, I don’t see us as anything more than an erased name on the big ol’ chalkboard of indie labels.”
On getting to know the late Jay Reatard:
Jay sent me a letter, addressed to Eric Oblivian, with a note in pencil saying, “Send me some stickers or something,” signed Jay X. I sent him some stickers and I think eventually he called me. I don’t actually remember the first time I met him, which is kind of weird. He had been hanging out with Zac a bit; Zac would give him a ride into Midtown to go to shows or hang out and listen to records. He was completely precocious and snotty about music, but also respectful of other people’s stuff and always curious. Jay was always like that; he loved the chaos but was extremely loyal to the people he respected.
On adapting to the mainstream acceptance of “Goner music,” from festivals to documentaries to bigger labels:
I don’t know. I think the major labels and the money people just bailed on new, exciting bands. For the whole time the Oblivians were a “real” band in the ’90s, Long Gone John at Sympathy basically bankrolled the garage underground. He’d pay you a thousand bucks to do a record and you could pay rent for a couple of months. If any of those bands turned out that they could sell records, the real labels would swoop down and try to sell ‘em. There were no development deals. People couldn’t even go broke with bad deals from majors; there was nothing. For these bigger labels to come around now is kind of weird. We don’t see why these garage/punk/whatever bands shouldn’t be huge; to us, they are accessible and making fresh, exciting music. They’re not moping around reinventing Siouxsie & the Banshees or whatever. The size of the audience I think is smaller than ever, though. The Gibson Bros. were pressing batches of 5,000 of their stuff in the ’80s. We’re finally at that level with Ty Segall and the Reatards reissue after all these years. It’s ridiculous, but it’s how things are now.
On the label’s annual party in Memphis, Gonerfest:
It’s another typical Goner story – basically an accident that turned out all right. Our first new records after opening the store and going full bore with the label were one from King Louie’s One Man Band and one from King Khan & BBQ Show. It turned out that King Khan & BBQ were coming through town, so we got them a show on a Friday and put Louie on a Saturday and started booking bands around them. Turned out lots of bands wanted to come to Memphis, including bands from Milwaukee as well as Memphis. We ended up with like six bands a night, with people booking other shows around the “official” shows, too. We had called it Gonerfest as a joke, but people really wanted this kind of thing! We had it booked at the Buccaneer, which is basically a bar in an old house; it’s a great old bar with a pirate theme, but very cozy. We had around 200 people show up to the first Gonerfest to a room that basically holds 75 people. It was nuts! We had people from England and Canada and Italy flying to Memphis to see this show that we had no idea would generate this kind of enthusiasm. It was truly a surprise to us, but it turned out great.
We haven’t had big sponsors for the festival; the only way we get the bands that we do is that the bands themselves want to come to the festival. We can’t actually afford all these great bands but we get by on their goodwill. I think that spirit makes the festival different from other events.
On starting a record store:
Zac [Ives, Goner co-owner] had moved back from Washington D.C. and we had been looking for a project – a bar, a retail store, a record store or something. We’d been doing some research and trying to plan when Greg [Cartwright, Oblivians, Reigning Sound] said he was leaving his store to move to Asheville, N.C. The opportunity was there and we knew we had to take it. The space was no-frills but rent was cheap, location was great and we jumped in. I’d already been doing mail-order since the mid ’90s on my own, and my website had a bunch of traffic from a lively message board, so we already had an online community there as well. We’ve stumbled through whatever growth we’ve had at every step. We’re very conservative with our buying and we’re lucky that Memphis is cheap. We also live the simple life, and both Zac and I have other part-time jobs. If anyone was laying this out as a business opportunity, it would be obvious that there is more money running a laundromat or delivering pizzas. But between the label and the store (which is the #1 outlet for the label, too), it’s worked out pretty well so far.
A few words on some Goner bands:
We were lucky to have started out with Jay and to get to watch him progress through the years. Although I was attracted initially to his crude first recordings, I enjoyed the synth/metal Lost Sounds and Destruction Unit stuff, too. He was sure people would hate the acoustic guitar in his cover of The Go-Betweens‘ “Don’t Let Him Come Back,” but they didn’t – or if he lost some fans who wanted him to be Jay from the Reatards and destroy everything and play as fast as he could, he gained 10 more who liked the balance of aggression and melody. I remember going to the Austin Record Convention with a stack of his first single, which is him playing guitar and yelling and banging on buckets for percussion, really crudely recorded. People were coming up and listening to this thing on little portable record players with four-inch plastic speakers. It sounded like rhythmic white noise, but they were asking if they could buy five at a time. They obviously heard something through the horrible fidelity.
While putting together the material we added for the reissue of his first album, Teenage Hate, we’ve had the pleasure of listening to a 16-year-old Jay figuring this rock ‘n’ roll thing out all over again. He was really amazing. And a real hard worker. Once we got more involved in “real” record business stuff, Zac and I would ask him about how music contracts worked – just like he had once learned how to work his home recording equipment, when he realized he was going to be subject to these contracts he learned all he could and definitely helped us understand how a lot of that side worked. We really miss him.
The funny thing about Khan & Mark Sultan was that they had been so obnoxious to a bunch of people in their previous band, The Spaceshits, that no one really took ‘em seriously and I don’t think even took the time to hear their stuff when they were initially sending out the King Khan & BBQ recordings. We loved ‘em; the lo-fi aspect combined with their doo-wop and pop songs really worked!
Another great, great band. We had been fans of theirs for a while but never thought about doing anything until after a show someone in the band – I don’t even remember who it was, maybe Josh – asked, “So how do you get on Goner?” “Uh, if Carbonas want to do a record,” I said, “you’re on Goner!” I don’t know of any other punk bands with hooks as good as the Carbonas. The mighty Marked Men might come close. Great frontman, great guitarists, great rhythm section. Wish they could have put out another album!
Proof that if you follow your dreams relentlessly they can come true. One of the least-competent bands I had ever seen in my life eventually ended up on Sony without sacrificing their sound or really even getting any better. I loved them from the start. One sign of a great band is when you can laugh at them and don’t know how they get from one moment to the next. It’s a kind of functional/dysfunctional group magic and I can’t resist it. I really wish I had continued to put out Guitar Wolf albums after the first one, but I was going through some legal/financial stuff at the time and didn’t think I could afford it. Having them play Gonerfest last year was like completing some strange, huge circle. Still funny, powerful, and one of the best ever.
We had seen Lisa play with Headache City and I was amazed at her drumming and was actually bummed that she played guitar and not drums in this new band Cococoma. That was only because I hadn’t seen her husband Bill play drums! Really powerful howl of a band – kinda remind me of the Volcano Suns but with more of a ’60s garage vibe underneath the squall. Turns out Lisa’s a great guitar player, too! New lineup is smokin’!
The Sic Alps, I think, left a CD-R with us, saying, “Ty’s gonna be on tour with us; he should play Gonerfest.” Somehow we managed to not hear it until after they had come through and we were completely blown away; this is the stuff that was on his first album on Castleface. We got in touch about upcoming music and have been working with him ever since. Ty’s been making great music for a long time but I think he’s really coming into his own now with a band that’s really powerful without being stupidly heavy and ’60s-esque without having to wear beads or patchouli. He did an EP of Marc Bolan covers with us for Record Store Day this year and it made sense; Ty is developing the same kind of poise and groove, if not the same sound as T. Rex. Can’t wait to see and hear what he does next.
We got an email from a friend, Rich Stanley in Melbourne, who said, “You’ve gotta put out this band Eddy Current; they’re the best Australian band since the Saints.” He was releasing their first album in Australia and they were looking for a U.S. label. We heard the stuff and loved it – very minimal, tense stuff that had elements of Wire and maybe Fugazi but were also very Australian, with a unique singer, unique songs, a fantastic guitarist in Mikey Young, and a rhythm section to die for. They loved Memphis music and we were honored that they would work with us. They’ve turned down some bigger offers and their DIY approach and super-straightforward attitude has made us their biggest fans. Can’t wait to hear their new stuff as well!
Greg was obviously an old friend and we got a great recording from their show in the Goner store from our friends at Rocket Science Audio. But, like a lot of the recordings we get from Gonerfest, we didn’t really know what to do with it. They’d already put out a live album that had spirited performances but didn’t hold together as well as this set. We had been talking to people who heard it and they all urged us to put it out as an album. Billy Miller from Norton Records put out two songs from the session as a single and told us we were stupid if we didn’t release the whole thing. We eventually did, and it’s one of my favorite live albums ever – despite the fact that Greg has to stop songs when he’s getting shocked by our old Shure PA. Reigning Sound really still needs to be acknowledged as one of the best rock ‘n’ roll bands going right now.