Armagideon Time

Hanuman Care Kit Lands in Austin -- Sort of

Getting and keeping a record deal is tough enough, but getting one in another country -- another continent, even -- would seem to rank right up there with such Herculean efforts as Mick Jagger maintaining the Stones' street cred over the waning decades. Tough work, if you can get it.

Nevertheless, local bands such as Shoulders have in the past found themselves in the roundabout position of having to go overseas to secure proper releases, while the whole Calvin-Russell-as-Jerry-Lewis-in-France thing has been well-documented. Which makes the recent twist on this scenario all the more curious. Released domestically on the Gorgone label, Visiting, the debut from French trip-hop duo Hanuman Care Kit, has crossed the Atlantic and landed in the lap of longtime Austin impresario Mike Stewart, whose production company has essentially taken over the Stateside marketing and distribution of the much-lauded CD. Not that this was an accident; Stewart lobbied to work with the duo so that he might break them in the U.S.

Best known in Austin as the producer behind Poi Dog Pondering, Stewart's bio reads more like a listing of Hall of Fame Austin acts: True Believers, Kris McKay, Glass Eye, Timbuk3, and Ed Hall, among others. More importantly, perhaps -- and apart from his namesake distribution and marketing network -- Stewart also has a hand in running (with Miles Faulkner) the American wing of Holland's Munich Records, whose roster list includes another band to break, the Gourds.

Turns out that Stewart became interested in consulting for European labels a few years back, trying to scare up licensing agreements in Europe for the likes of Calvin Russell and others. According to Stewart, he came across a small label in Munich that did a lot of American, "greasy-style music."

"By that I mean they distribute Rounder Records and Watermelon Records over there," explains Stewart. "They had been trying to find somebody to actually open up a label in the U.S., and had gone to lots of different labels and nobody else really wanted to take them on. So they asked me what I'd do in that situation and I told them, you know, I'd do this and that and all these things. Eventually, we reached the point where rather than actually opening up a label, we just signed an agreement to market them in the United States, which in essence means we handle the distribution, we buy ads, we handle radio promos -- anything, really, as if we were a label. Only we're not pressing the product. That part has already been done."

After a couple of years, Stewart found himself in Cannes during MIDEM -- a huge, international music business variance on South by Southwest. It was there that he was approached by Gorgone Productions reps who were interested in gaining a toehold in the American market.

"It's a funny little label," says Stewart. "They actually own a large studio in France, and they produce classical music and all sorts of stuff -- mainly French music -- except he had this one band called Hanuman Care Kit whom he also met through the MIDEM last year. MIDEM, by the way, is the largest music conference in the world. It's... in January, and anyone who wants to really figure out what's going on in the world of music should go to this thing. It's about 15,000 registrants plus bands, personnel, and whatnot. Anyway, I had a meeting with these guys, kind of told them what I was doing here in Austin, and they liked the idea of doing an experiment with his label and an American one. So we did a deal, came up with a budget, and got started on it. And it's really because I love this band, Hanuman Care Kit."

What's not to love? Fronted by the French "Flazz" and U.K. expatriate "Stig," Hanuman Care Kit's 1996 release of Visited in France created a noticeable underground stir -- so much so that Massive Attack's DJ Gaffa Armagedion took a notice and popped by to do some remixes for the group. As if that wasn't enough, a steady buzz has been building of late, and in the wake of similar stateside successes from the likes of Planet Dog artists such as Banco de Gaia, HCK looks like a good bet to break big on these shores.

And if they don't, it's not because HCK hasn't mined the groove well; Visited is packed with phat, drooling, gooey dub work (some cuts sounding like they could've been birthed in some Kingston shantytown), with Stig and Flazz trading vox in between the occasional dancehall-esque patter. It's not all sunny reggae acid-drops, though; much of Visited falls within creeping distance of some of Tricky's more accessible work, with other cuts dosing on gelatinous ambient backgrounds. Less technologically beat-heavy than it is purely "organic" -- as Stewart likes to call it -- HCK is stickier than Ohms' bathroom floor.

But whether or not HCK finally materializes on the 101X playlist anytime soon seems a moot point. Stewart has already broken new ground by bringing the group's vibe to the U.S. by virtue of Gorgone's distribution dealings with Mike Stewart Productions. Just how widespread is this sort of flip-flop practice? Stewart says it's common practice for European bands to believe that they can do it, whether they really can or not.

"For instance," explains Stewart, "Gorgone is distributed by Musidisc in Europe -- that's the same label that signed Shoulders over there, by the way. Musidisc has a distribution agreement with a distributor called Allegro, which it had for seven or eight years. So when we actually started talking about this deal with Gorgone, Gorgone was all ready to do it. All they had to do was write a letter to Musidisc saying, in effect, `We will allow you to distribute our product in North America.' So automatically, they had distribution in America and did not have to go to all the trouble of shopping around for a distributor. Now, whether that's good or bad remains to be seen over the long run.

"It's possible for people who put out a lot of records [in Europe] to get distribution in America. The Rounder distribution company, called DNA, has 60 or 70 European labels and ADA, which is owned by Warner Bros., probably has something like 200 European labels. But hardly any of these labels spend any money at all in the U.S. -- things like organizing press, tours, radio, and promo stuff; for whatever reason, they're just not spending the money here."

Gorgone Productions, for their part, had only to cut Stewart a check and give him rough guidelines on what to spend their money on. Standard marketing techniques -- blanketing college radio with promos, working the phones, and generally making sure a push was being given where it was needed most -- took up most of the cash outlay.

"A simple way of doing it that didn't involve much administration was for us to say, you guys gotta spend $50,000 and we're going to decide how to spend it. Then they send us $50,000 and we'd spend it. Like that. The problem that I run into with people giving me money is that people then believe that you're working for them and they think you have some accountability. We actually make a choice to put together budgets, and then have them go down the budgets and put their initials on every item on the budget prior to us spending the money. The reason for that being, if they decide later on that they didn't sell enough records or if they feel we misspent the money, then we can say, look, we went over all of this beforehand."

Finally, the question remains, just how much is all this effort -- on the parts of both Gorgone and Mike Stewart Productions -- going to benefit the band in the long run? Breaking a new single on the college/alternative charts doesn't always guarantee success or increased album sales over time. And while the gang down at Alien Records may know who you're talking about when you mention HCK, not many other people seem to yet. This could change, although Stewart is ambivalent about the success rate of what he calls "baby bands," that is, new groups just starting out with a debut CD.

Mike Stewart
photograph by Bruce Dye

Says Stewart, "The HCK deal benefits us and Gorgone in a long-term sort of way, because we have labels in Europe that we license these masters to. It helps us do small deals with baby bands, new bands, bands that shouldn't even be shopping for a major label deal yet, anyway. It's really obvious in the world today that bands should release two or three or four records on a small label; they should go out and tour and decide whether they want to stay together before hitting the majors. So, if we have these outlets, and we can get these bands signed to a small European label, it has growth possibilities."

"With a band like HCK -- a band that, theoretically, anyway -- is going to get some benefit from this electronica wave, we can obviously get something done for them as far as sending them to radio and so on. We sent out product to 500 total radio stations, and right now, 200 stations are playing it, either in light, medium, or heavy rotation. We started out 13th most-added the first week we went to radio, and we entered the Top 200 CMJ chart at number 130. We only stayed on it one week, but little by little...

"The thing is: Would it have been better to have not done this, and not marketed the band, and not released it at all, and strictly gotten the band to a high-powered manager or attorney-type person who then would have shopped it to a major label, who then would have gobbled it up real quickly? You tell me. It's a total judgment call."

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