Label Profile: Light in the Attic Records

Christina Lee

By Christina Lee

on 11.02.11 in Spotlights

File under: Revitalized funk, folk and rock records from the States and around the world
Flagship acts: Wayne McGhie & The Sounds of Joy, Karen Dalton, Rodriguez, Jim Sullivan, Shin Joong Hyun
Based in: Seattle, Washington

Light in the Attic founder Matt Sullivan once interned for Sub Pop, but he didn’t know what he wanted to do until he studied abroad in Madrid and interned for Spanish label Munster, which alternated reissues of Suicide, Stooges and New York Dolls records with selections from the vast history of Spanish rock and punk.

Light in the Attic follows that template, releasing high-quality reissues alongside a few contemporary releases (The Black Angels, the Winter’s Bone soundtrack). The stories behind its retrospectives are usually obscure. Even though they may have been backed by Wrecking Crew giants and Motown session artists, the musicians Light in the Attic favors are the ones that are lost to history. Because they had refused to meet industry or even government demands, their master tapes are often destroyed. Consequently, behind every reissue are engrossing stories about broken spirits, and dogged hunts for label executives and producers who remember working with these lost stars.

eMusic’s Christina Lee talked with Sullivan about the label’s history and mission.

On the songs he listened to growing up:

I grew up, like a lot of Americans, listening to classic rock – Led Zeppelin, the Who, the Police – bands I still like. And then from there, probably the one that really struck a chord with me was Nirvana’s Nevermind, especially growing up in Seattle. I grew up in a suburb called Bellevue, and I went to high school from 1990-1994. When Nevermind hit, I guess I was in 10th grade, and – pretty cheesy moment – I was recording with this ghettoblaster my older brother had…the local, pretty bad pop station in Seattle at the time. They would have their Top 10 countdown every night, and when “Smells Like Teen Spirit” came to No. 1 every night, I would tape it with that little boombox and listen to it over and over again.

On coming face to face with the personal demons of others:

A lot of the time, [when you're doing these reissues] you’re digging up bad ghosts that people are keeping deep in the closet. That’s always a battle. You don’t realize that until you call them up, and people just aren’t friendly. It takes a lot for people to understand why you care and also to trust you.

That’s one reason it takes years – they have to trust that this is in good hands, because for most of their career it wasn’t. We’re good at earning people’s trust and sending out royalty checks in a timely manner, and most people are kinda shocked because they totally think we’re not going to be able to do what we say we’re gonna do. They don’t believe us, and it’s a battle because you’re kind of fighting everyone who’ve screwed them over for decades. So I can’t really argue when they don’t have that initial trust, because there’s really no reason they should trust you.

On other genres Sullivan would like to explore:

There’s really no genre we wouldn’t release if we like the record. There’s heavy metal records I like, there’s dance records I like, there’s country records I like. I mean, maybe Garth Brooks has some demos that are really cool. I’d be interested to hear them.

At this point, after all the stuff we’ve released, I guess I wouldn’t be surprised anymore if I find something that turns me onto something I normally wouldn’t like. If someone said something eight years ago about Mr. Shin [Joong Hyun], I wouldn’t even have thought that: a) someone like that exists, and b) that I would like it. But that’s a wonderful thing about music; it just opens your eyes up to so many cultures and records and artists and people, societies that are just completely fascinating. You kinda just realize that you’re living in a cardboard box of a world.

A few words on some Light in the Attic artists…

Shin Joong Hyun
It’s like an anthropological dig, where you’re constantly discovering new things like the Shin Joong Hyun record. I didn’t know his music, and then a friend turns me onto it, and then you kinda dig more into it, and you’re learning about Korean culture and Korean food and Korean politics in the ’60s and ’70s and ’80s.

Everything now is on video; it’s all been documented whether it wants to be or not. And the fact that Shin made these records – I mean, so little of it was documented, it’s a miracle that this record was made and exists and we can hear it today.

Cold Fact is probably my favorite record that we’ve released. It just speaks to me. I love the lyrics; it’s just so genuine and heartfelt. Everything he’s talking about rings true today. I wish I was in the same city as him. I’d just want to sit and listen, have him talk.

Karen Dalton
I just wanted [In My Own Time] to reach a wider audience so that my mom was picking it up – and she was picking it up – or anyone else who may or may not have ever discovered that type of music, and I really felt proud that we reached a wide audience.

These records weren’t just made for a collector or a guy in the States. These records are so much more. Our goal all along is not to be completists or to release the best tracks, but to release the records as they were intended; 99 percent of the people in the world have probably not heard of Rodriguez’s Cold Fact or not heard of Betty Davis or not heard of Karen Dalton. For us, that’s a big part of the label: reaching a wider audience, promoting the record with a lot of emphasis on the packaging, but also really trying to get these records a new life. We could have easily released Karen Dalton’s In My Own Time or Mr. Shin and had gone out for just that one audience. “Okay, Mr. Shin, we’re gonna go after just collectors,” or “With Karen Dalton, we’re just gonna go after folkies, or just people who like Joanna Newsom or Devendra Banhart.” I love those records and those people, but the records are just meant for so much more than that.

Wayne McGhie
I spent a year trying to find Wayne. [Seattle record collectors and deejays] Supreme and Sureshot had no clue; they were just like, “Here’s the album. It sells for $500 on eBay, and no one has it.” The only clues I had were on the back of the record, and the names are all of these Jamaican guys. I found out in my research that Wayne was from Montego Bay, Jamaica, and then moved to Toronto in the mid-to-late ’60s. Wayne went up there with his record, and all these Jamaican legends planted themselves there, just incredible, incredible players. And the album is a soul and funk record, but it has this strange Caribbean-type influence to it. And of the 80 or 90 records we’ve released, it’s definitely one of my Top 10. Sureshot and Supreme suggested I contact a friend of theirs who lived in Vancouver, and his name was Kevin “Sipreano” Howes – he’s the one who wrote the Shin liner notes. Kevin is huge collector of Canadian music and historian and deejay, and so he helped me try to find Wayne.

We finally found Wayne through a friend of Kevin’s named Derek in Toronto. Years prior, Derek went to a wedding and there was a Jamaican band playing. Derek started talking with the singer of the band, whose name is Jay Douglas, about how he had [Wayne's] record. Jay Douglas is from Montego Bay, the same place as Wayne, and was shocked – how does this white kid, 35 years old, know anything about Wayne McGhie? And so Jay freaks out. Jay gives Derek his business card and two to three years later, Kevin and I call Derek, say, “Hey, do you have any clue?” And he’s like, “Actually, I know of this one Jamaican guy…”

Jay had spent, like, three months trying to find Wayne, and as it turns out, Wayne suffered from schizophrenia in the late ’70s and disappeared. His sister took care of him, and he was really not in a good state. The last time Jay saw him was 10 years before we called. Wayne was walking outside with a T-shirt on in the blizzard in Toronto. Jay bought him a cup of coffee and a doughnut. Wayne couldn’t even really talk. He was a totally different person.

So we ended up flying to Toronto and meeting Wayne and sitting at a table with him. Wayne was in a state where he could barely talk, but he was excited that he was finally getting some recognition. So we play the record for Wayne. He’s crying. The image still gives me goosebumps, and it’s been like seven years. At the same time, I also reached out to Toronto newspapers, and this guy named Tim Perlich, who was, at the time, the music editor for NOW Magazine. He was super knowledgeable about the record, and he said he had been trying to find Wayne for a decade. So when Kevin and I found him, Tim wrote up an article about our arrival and took a picture of Wayne playing a guitar we brought him, at his sister’s house. I got home one day after the article came out, and I get this call. It’s like, “Hi, I’d like to reach Wayne McGhie.” I was like, “Who are you?” She said, “Well, I read this article in the paper today. I’m Wayne’s long-lost daughter and I haven’t talked to him in like 30 years.” And so, daughter and Wayne reunited – I mean, it goes on and on.