Slanted & Enchanted
Matador Records' Gerard Cosloy curates a 'Casual Victim Pile' on Red River
The yellow warning tape still hangs in tatters from the neighboring fence post: Fire Line Do Not Cross. What's left in the barren South Austin lot resembles an archaeological dig site after a flood. Puddles have formed in the trenches left by the tractors used to haul out the debris. Scraps of countless vinyl records – irreplaceable rock & roll relics – are littered like shrapnel, the warped grooves fossilizing in the dirt.
Gerard Cosloy, co-owner of Matador Records, one of the most influential indie labels of the past two decades, won't speak on the record about the 3am blaze on Aug. 11 that destroyed his near-century-old two-story home on Lindell Avenue, except to express his gratitude for the communal support that surfaced in its wake. He and his roommate lost everything, including a pet ferret and a portable storage space sheltering old guitars and personal belongings. The Austin Fire Department never determined the cause of the fire, damage from which was estimated at $500,000.
Matador's release of Casual Victim Pile on Tuesday isn't the phoenix rising from these ashes, but rather the emergence of a Black Swan Event – a phenomenal and unexpected occurence. In this case that's a 19-band compilation of mostly local teenage kicks and handshake drugs that has the potential to elevate the local garage-punk scene to a national level. The album was initiated well before the accident, but the fire transformed its scope. Five additional bands were asked to take part, turning the collection from a single to double LP that needed new art once the original was destroyed last summer.
"I was having a hard time feeling comfortable about a sequence and the record as a whole," recalls Cosloy over coffee at Rio Rita, which dedicated a Love & a 45 DJ night to him after the disaster. "Afterwards, I felt a lot more motivated to get it done. I know this is going to sound like a huge cliché, but you never know when you're not going to be around to finish something, so you might as well do it now.
"The Teeners breaking up was a big gunshot going off in my head, too. If I sat on this thing too long, there could be six broken-up bands. It'd be a real shame if my procrastination tendencies and ability to overanalyze things ultimately rendered the record irrelevant 'cause it came out too late."
That's a familiar concern in the music business – here today, gone later today – and Cosloy's no stranger to the industry. He's the Jerry Wexler of indie rock, an indispensable tastemaker with New York confidence and casual Austin humility. Over Matador's 350 albums, he's played an integral role in the careers of Pavement, Yo La Tengo, Cat Power, and Belle and Sebastian, not to mention Spoon, which he signed to the label after catching a performance at the Blue Flamingo on Red River during South by Southwest 1994.
Casual Victim Pile now marks the culmination of his four-year tenure in Austin.
"There was a particular moment in 2008, probably after seeing Dikes of Holland play too many shows in front of too tiny of crowds," explains Cosloy. "I had this gnawing feeling that someone needed to take a snapshot of this before it isn't here anymore."
Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain
The desire to track history in revolutions per minute traces back to Cosloy's first-ever release, 1984's Bands That Could Be God. The self-issued compilation served as a sampler for the hardcore bands making the rounds at Boston dive Chet's Last Call, most notably Deep Wound, which later evolved into Dinosaur Jr., along with Moving Targets, Sorry, and the Outpatients.
"I'm not a producer; anyone can tell you that," Cosloy concedes. "I don't go into the studio with bands and tutor them on how to change the chorus to this or that. I've always been more attracted by the idea of being a curator."
Raised some 30 minutes outside of Boston in Wayland, Mass., "a sleepy suburban town," Cosloy discovered punk rock through The Demi Monde, a Saturday afternoon program hosted by Oedipus on MIT's 10-watt radio station that spun early singles from Television, Patti Smith, the Ramones, and Wire. "At that moment in time, it definitely felt like a big line in the sand had been drawn," nods Cosloy.
There's no doubting which side he chose. A year after the Sex Pistols stormed Randy's Rodeo in San Antonio, Cosloy started Conflict, a mimeographed zine, while he was still in high school. A decade later, Pavement guitarist/singer Scott Kannberg sent the publication a copy of the band's Slay Tracks EP for review. Cosloy was also a DJ for Boston's WZBC, promoted some shows in the area, and covered the scene for the Village Voice and Boston Rock, for which he once asked Black Flag why they didn't stop the violence at their shows. Robo's response was, "Do we have a right to act as leaders, to tell people how to act?"
A noted experimental musician, Cosloy toured with both New York's Dustdevils and punk icon GG Allin and founded Air Traffic Controllers, a turbulent, local improv jetliner that continues today with a revolving cast of drummers that includes King Coffey of the Butthole Surfers and Naw Dude's J.J. Ruiz. The band's recordings are reserved solely for Parallelism, Cosloy's boutique experimental label.
After briefly enrolling at UMass-Amherst, Cosloy was hired by Dutch East India Trading owner Barry Tenenbaum to manage Long Island, N.Y.'s Homestead Records, which distributed Conflict. He was only 18 at the time.
"For a good chunk of it, it was a one-man operation," summarizes Cosloy, author of the sports blog Can't Stop the Bleeding. "There was a slave-labor aspect to it, but I don't know anybody else on Earth that would have allowed me to do that with no experience, even if it wasn't a particularly well-financed record company. I have a debt of gratitude, but it was a tough time.
"Homestead was a lesson that a lot of great things can happen whenever you're able to put out whatever you want, but that you maybe shouldn't put out everything you want 'cause you end up putting out too many records and run out of time to do everything."
Over the next six years, Cosloy lifted Homestead to the ranks of Touch & Go Records and Greg Ginn's SST Records (see "Rise Above," Aug. 21, 2009), releasing seminal works by Sonic Youth, Big Black, Dinosaur Jr., and Austin-bred outfit Nice Strong Arm, along with proto-grunge touchstones from Green River and U-Men. After Paul Smith's Blast First label parted ways with Daniel Johnston following his infamous meltdown in New York City – an event intensely detailed in the 2005 documentary The Devil and Daniel Johnston – Homestead reissued the iconic artist's essential tapes, 1983's Yip/Jump Music and 1985's Hi, How Are You?.
"While I had tremendous sympathy for Daniel's situation at the time and wanted him to get whatever care he needed, that wasn't my job," stresses Cosloy, rejecting the claim of some that a business relationship with the manic, one-time local songwriter was inherently exploitative. "Artists are people. It's not like manufacturing Campbell's soup or Nike shoes. All kinds of things happen in their real lives. The bottom line is that those records are brilliant. He deserved to have those records come out, and people deserved to hear them."
The history of Matador Records can't be separated from that of Homestead. Founder Chris Lombardi served on Dutch East's sales staff, while co-owner Patrick Amory succeeded Cosloy as domestic buyer at Dutch East. Released a year after partnering with Lombardi, Cosloy's 1991 Matador compilation, New York Eye & Ear Control – not to be confused with Albert Ayler's free jazz soundtrack of the same name – was originally earmarked as a Homestead release before he resigned in 1990.
"From day one we were doing things in a way that was far more ambitious than Homestead despite the fact that it was a completely new project and we had no dough," reminisces Cosloy, who, before relocating locally, worked for an extended period out of Europe. "But we believed in it. I think there was this sense that if we could express that confidence to the rest of the world other people would get it."
Matador has charted an unparalleled and indefinable path through music: the gritty Delta blues of R.L. Burnside, Liz Phair's confessional watershed Exile in Guyville, and the tireless brilliance of Yo La Tengo, to name three greatest hits. In the process, the label established itself not through any one particular scene, movement, or sound, but instead as a standard of quality.
Since merging with UK's Beggars Group in 2002 – owner Martin Mills purchased a 50% stake in the company, and the two entities now share a marketing and sales department in New York – Matador has only expanded its scope. The label helped lead the vinyl resurgence via its Buy Early Get Now campaign, offering immediate digital downloads and other incentives with LP purchases.
Despite the grievous death of rising punk Jay Reatard last week, 2010 should be another banner year for Matador. The long-awaited Pavement reunion kicks off in March, coinciding with a greatest hits compilation. The label also recently acquired Dean Bein's True Panther Sounds imprint, the roster for which includes breakthrough bleach-pop duo Girls – headlining the Parish next Saturday – as well as Rainbow Bridge and Standing Nudes.
Closer to home, The Golden Archipelago, the sixth album from Austin's exquisite Shearwater, drops next month, while local bleary-eyed pop romantics Harlem, the only band whose song on Casual Victim Pile was previously released, follows with its formal label bow, Hippies, due April 6.
"I wouldn't say we're back to the bad old days of the early Eighties for independent music, but we're definitely getting used to a different sort of economy of scale," Cosloy comments. "I feel sometimes like we have to work twice as hard and spend twice as much money to sell half as many records that we would have been satisfied with a decade ago.
"I feel grateful that a lot of the things we started off doing are mostly still intact. Either we're into it or we're not. [In 2009], we got to put out records by Yo La Tengo, Sonic Youth, and Mission of Burma. In my head, that's ridiculous – probably my three favorite bands ever, period.
"Sometimes things take a while, and there's all sorts of revisionist history that takes place. I remember when we first signed Spoon, the public and press alike were not particularly supportive of the band. Fast forward more than a decade and they're one of the more iconic, universally beloved bands on the circuit. It was hard to imagine that happening within our first 12 months of working with them."
Brighten the Corners
Casual Victim Pile is an anagram for "Live Music Capital," which gives some insight into Cosloy's contrarian streak and dark humor. ("Kind Belcher Boils," a cryptic code for "Kill Bob Schneider," was also considered but was discarded due to legal concerns.) To wit, his idea of an all-star band is Austin's Love Collector, formerly known as the Modern Fuckers, which features past/present members of the Ape-Shits, Sex Advice, Lost Controls, and the Shitty Beach Boys.
"I realize that none of these bands are household names, but I'd be very surprised if at least five or six of these bands don't go on to make a national record for another label in the course of the next year," predicts Cosloy, who started culling submissions in late 2008. "The bands on Casual Victim Pile are far more organized and professional than the ones I worked with a quarter-century ago. Hopefully everyone associated will reap some sort of benefit, whether it's a month from now or 10 years from now."
The compilation, which features two Denton acts (Tre Orsi and Bad Sports), documents the depths of Austin's underground rock scene in the tradition of Ward-9's Cottage Cheese From the Lips of Death in 1983 and Trance Syndicate's Love and Napalm collection a decade later. That said, the spirit of Casual Victim Pile more closely resembles that of 1979 local sampler Live at Raul's in the way it bottles the garage-punk movement fermenting at Beerland. Over the past few years, the Red River bunker has been ground zero for acts as diverse as the Strange Boys, Manikin, the Hex Dispensers, and the Crack Pipes, all of whom are accounted for in a list of 21 additional recommended bands in the liner notes.
Given that five of the contributors are making their recorded debut on the compilation, it's almost as if Dikes of Holland's No Wave tremors and the blitzkrieg bop of the Flesh Lights previously existed only within the club's narrow cinder-block confines. The album cover art even hovers over the corner of Red River and Seventh Street, where Cosloy held his 45th birthday bash with the Golden Boys and Dated last month and detonates the release of CVP with a three-night stand Feb. 4-6, featuring all of the compilation's contributors, with the noted exception of Tre Orsi and the Teeners.
"That's not the worst way of putting it," counters Cosloy in regard to the Raul's reference. "The record is definitely not meant to be the Beerland class photo. If a large percentage of the bands are playing there a lot and not other places, I think that's something for the other clubs to address. ...
"It's not a hardcore comp or a punk comp. It's not really any one thing. You would have a very hard time taking a band like Wild America and Kingdom of Suicide Lovers and saying, 'Yeah, that's them – that's the Austin sound.' It's not."
Yet taken as a whole, from the grimy tribalism of Woven Bones and the No No No Hopes' hardcore taunting to Elvis' confrontational theatrics and the siren quake of Follow That Bird!, Casual Victim Pile represents the most exciting and provocative sound in Austin right now, a new rank and file of DIY bands sweating it out in the clubs and turning three chords into priceless punk artifacts. Any doubters should heed Cosloy's advice in the liner notes:
"Corrections and suggestions for the cassette-only Vol. II can be sent to our 304 Hudson St. address (or left on my lawn, whichever is more convenient)."
20 Essential Matador Records
Teenage Fanclub A Catholic Education (1990)
Pavement Slanted & Enchanted (1992)
Liz Phair Exile in Guyville (1993)
Yo La Tengo Painful (1993)
Pavement Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain (1994)
R.L. Burnside A Ass Pocket of Whiskey (1996)
The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion Now I Got Worry (1996)
Spoon Telephono (1996)
Belle & Sebastian If You're Feeling Sinister (1998)
Jad Fair & Yo La Tengo Strange But True (1998)
Boards of Canada Music Has the Right to Children (1998)
Nightmares on Wax Carboot Soul (1999)
The New Pornographers Mass Romantic (2000)
Arab Strap The Red Thread (2001)
Interpol Turn on the Bright Lights (2002)
Guided By Voices The Best of Guided By Voices: Human Amusement at Hourly Rates (2003)
Dizzee Rascal Boy in da Corner (2004)
Cat Power The Greatest (2006)
Fucked Up The Chemistry of Common Life (2008)
Sonic Youth The Eternal (2009)
Casual Victim Pile scrums three nights at Beerland, Thursday-Saturday, Feb. 4-6.
Quarantine the Past
"In the early days of Matador, I will openly admit that we did not have our shit together. We had a lot of trouble keeping normal office hours. We were teetering on the brink of bankruptcy every week.
"We could not keep up with the demand for Pavement's Slanted and Enchanted. We couldn't just press a couple thousand. It was an 'Album of the Month' in Spin before it was even manufactured. We had to find some way of making 10- or 12,000 copies right away with zero money in the bank, so we fell behind on rent. We didn't have a warehouse; we had one little office in a building on lower Broadway.
"The day we got the shipment of the finished copies, which had already been delayed for two months because we were trying to raise the funds to get them, the building super and the New York City sheriff showed up and locked us out the office for nonpayment of rent. ...
"It was one of the most embarrassing things that could possibly happen.
"They're putting a condemned sign on the door of the office while [Matador founder] Chris [Lombardi] is at the bank trying to get a realty check to bring to the office in time, a total emergency.
"I won't leave the office. If I do, they're going to close the door and lock it, and we've got these 15,000 Pavement records that everyone's waiting for. The sheriff is like, 'You have to leave. If you don't leave, we're going to arrest you.'
"I tell him, 'Well, you're going to have to arrest me. I can't leave this stuff unattended. This is a huge thing.' My favorite memory of it is this guy saying, 'Look kid, if you don't leave, you're going to get arrested; it's going to go on your record. Good luck getting into college.'
"This was like 1992. 'How old do you think I am? I don't have to worry about getting into college. If that's the biggest thing I have to worry about, put the cuffs on me right now.'
"Literally just as the guy starts drilling to put the new locks on, Chris shows up Superman-style with the check. Another bullet dodged."