Saddle Creek goes to SXSW; the Good Life hits the road; PUP, Screaming Females tonight…

Category: Blog — Tags: , , , — @ 1:50 pm March 4, 2020

Saddle Creek Records returns to South By Southwest.

by Tim McMahan, Lazy-i.com

Man, I miss going to South by Southwest in Austin. I attended the music festival for four or five years in a row back in the last decade. I haven’t been to SXSW since 2015. Look, if you can hit only one music festival, this is the one (CMJ was the other one, but that went belly up years ago).

SXSW is a great place to hear new bands, and Saddle Creek Records has always taken advantage of that fact, having seen a number of acts there over the years that would eventually join their roster. This year Saddle Creek is hosting a showcase at SXSW in partnership with Polyvinyl Records and Double Double Whammy.

Performing Saddle Creek bands are Frances Quinlan (of Hop Along fame), Tomberlin, Land of Talk (new album on the way), Disq (new album out this Friday) and Ada Lea. Joining them at Cheer Up Charlie’s for this official SXSW showcase March 18 are Yumi Zouma, Great Grandpa, Anna Burch, Long Beard, Squirrel Flower, Sean Henry and McKinley Dixon.

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The Good Life announced today that they’re launching a summer tour in honor of the 16th’s anniversary of the release of Album of the Year. The band will hit the road in June, and the tour includes a stop at The Waiting Room July 3!

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That big PUP show I told you about is tonight at The Waiting Room. Joining the band is Screaming Females and The Drew Thomson Foundation. $23, 8 p.m. Should be a corker.

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Read Tim McMahan’s blog daily at Lazy-i.com — an online music magazine that includes feature interviews, reviews and news. The focus is on the national indie music scene with a special emphasis on the best original bands in the Omaha area. Copyright © 2020 Tim McMahan. All rights reserved.

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Bright Eyes signs to Dead Oceans, to tour in 2020; new Meth Head Steamroller…

Category: Blog — Tags: , , — @ 1:47 pm January 21, 2020

Bright Eyes in the recording studio.

by Tim McMahan, Lazy-i.com

The Bright Eyes eye chart clue from Instagram.

The clues were right in front of your eyes. Yesterday followers of the Bright Eyes Instagram site were treated to photos of cryptic concert posters that all but claimed a new record and tour.

Then this morning NME reported Bright Eyes will release a new album on Dead Oceans sometime in 2020. The End of the Road Festival in Larmer Tree Gardens in Dorset, England, Sept. 3-6 will be just one stop on a world tour that likely will take Conor Oberst, Nate Walcott and Mike Mogis everywhere (but not to Omaha, not yet anyway).

A video of the trio in the studio with a chamber orchestra was posted on the Dead Oceans twitter feed. This from the Dead Oceans press release:

And while 2020 is a year of milestones for the band, it’s also the year Bright Eyes returns, newly signed to indie label Dead Oceans. Amidst the current overwhelming uncertainty and upheaval of global and personal worlds, Oberst, Mogis, and Walcott reunited under the moniker as both an escape from, and a confrontation of, trying times. Getting the band back together felt right, and necessary, and the friendship at the core of the band has been a longtime pillar of Bright Eyes’ output. For Bright Eyes, this long-awaited re-emergence feels like coming home.”

Kind of, but if they were coming home, they would be coming back to Saddle Creek Records.

No one really thought that Bright Eyes was a dead entity. The collective is just another Oberst incarnation; it just happens to be his best incarnation. There’s a story there somewhere about why two of the crown jewels — Bright Eyes and Cursive — parted ways with the label they helped build. It can’t be money issues — could they really make that much more going to a different label (or creating their own)? Not likely; not these days.

While Oberst’s other recording projects were released on other labels, Bright Eyes was — and will always be — considered a Saddle Creek entity, no matter what Dead Oceans says or does. Saddle Creek was where the magic happened. The fact that Bright Eyes didn’t return to that label is the only sad note in this good news story.

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Maybe just as important as that Bright Eyes news is that Meth Head Steamroller — a project by the mysterious Benny Leather and mad king renaissance producer Ian Aeillo — dropped a new EP in Bandcamp. Enjoy!

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Read Tim McMahan’s blog daily at Lazy-i.com — an online music magazine that includes feature interviews, reviews and news. The focus is on the national indie music scene with a special emphasis on the best original bands in the Omaha area. Copyright © 2020 Tim McMahan. All rights reserved.

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Disq drops first track from upcoming Saddle Creek LP debut, Collector…

Category: Blog — Tags: , , — @ 1:29 pm January 8, 2020

Disq circa 2020.

by Tim McMahan, Lazy-i.com

Madison, Wisconsin indie rockers Disq are releasing their debut full-length Collector, March 6 on Saddle Creek Records.

This isn’t a huge surprise considering the band’s “Document-series” single “Communication” b/w “Parallel” was released by Saddle Creek last January and caught fire with the indie kids (It was one of my favorite tracks of 2019 as well).

From the Bandcamp page: “Produced by Rob Schnapf, Collector is a set of songs largely pulled from each of the five members’ demo piles over the years. They’re organic representations of each moment in time, gathered together to tell a mixtape-story of growing up in 21st century America.

Rob Schnapf has quite a track record. He co-produced Elliott Smith’s Either/Or, XO, Figure 8 and From a Basement on the Hill albums, and as a co-founder of Bong Load Records helped discover Beck and record his Mellow Gold album. Schnapf also is credited with producing albums by Guided by Voices, Tokyo Police Club, Dr. Dog, FIDLAR and Dilly Dally, among others.

I’ve seen Disq live a couple times and this first track is indicative of their stage style, which is slacker-fied heavy indie a la Pavement spliced with Weezer but with more refined compositions reminiscent of Teenage Fanclub. In an era of slick, vibe-fueled Yacht-rock-style indie (Tame Impala comes to mind) Disq gives me hope for a more rocking future.

You can pre-order vinly, CD and those goofy cassettes right here from the Saddle Creek store.

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Read Tim McMahan’s blog daily at Lazy-i.com — an online music magazine that includes feature interviews, reviews and news. The focus is on the national indie music scene with a special emphasis on the best original bands in the Omaha area. Copyright © 2020 Tim McMahan. All rights reserved.

 

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The record distribution mess: Saddle Creek, 4AD and others leave ADA for Redeye Distribution…

Category: Blog — Tags: , , , , , , — @ 1:45 pm January 7, 2020

Redeye is now the distributor for Saddle Creek Records.

by Tim McMahan, Lazy-i.com

A couple weeks ago I read a rather lengthy and alarming story in Pitchfork where they talked about a company called Direct Shot and how it’s screwing up the distribution channels for record labels. It’s a long read, but it basically details how Direct Shot has dropped the ball getting vinyl and other orders to outlets.

Among the largest labels impacted by Direct Shot is Warner Music Group, who switched distributors to Direct Shot last April.

This switch also extended to the indie labels that work with Warner’s Alternative Distribution Alliance (ADA), which has Sub Pop, 4AD, Matador, Rough Trade, XL, Domino, and Saddle Creek listed as partners on its website. “ said the article.

Well, that switch really messed up a lot of labels’ ability to fulfill orders because of Direct Shot’s struggles with getting their part of the job — the distribution part — done efficiently.

I emailed Saddle Creek Records’ head honcho Robb Nansel at the time and asked if Saddle Creek was being impacted by the Direct Shot fiasco.

“It has impacted everyone, yes,” Nansel said, always a man of few words.

Welp, yesterday Saddle Creek was among a handful of indie labels that announced they have left ADA. The labels include 4AD, Matador, Rough Trade, Young Turks, Domino and XL. Their new distributor: North Carolina’s Redeye Distribution.

Over the years, I remember Redeye being a tiny player in the indie distribution game. Way back in March 2006 Mt. Fuji Records (the label operated by former Omahan Mike Jaworski and that included among its foster Little Brazil) signed a deal with Redeye, who at the time was working with the likes of  Yep Rock, Gern Blandsten, Flameshovel, Parasol and GSL.

Redeye was one of the small distro houses that made it possible for the little guys to get their records in stores across the country. So it’s kind of cool to see them playing a role in trying to fix the enormous distribution problems facing the music industry.

From the MusicBusiness Worldwide article about the deal:

Redeye feels like the right place for us to be,” said Saddle Creek’s Robb Nansel. “With a staff that is clearly made up of music fans and creators, we are excited to be a part of the independent community at Redeye and we look forward to growing together in the future.

No doubt the Direct Shot distribution headache has impacted record stores as well, including our very own Homer’s. Just ask Homer’s General Manager Mike Fratt.

“It’s been one of the biggest challenges we have faced in my 40 years at music retail,” Fratt said. “With the move of a half dozen major indies to Redeye, they become a major player going forward.”

The move to Redeye may solve Saddle Creek’s and those other indies’ distro problems, but when it comes to the industry as a whole, there’s still a whole lot of work that needs to be done…

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Read Tim McMahan’s blog daily at Lazy-i.com — an online music magazine that includes feature interviews, reviews and news. The focus is on the national indie music scene with a special emphasis on the best original bands in the Omaha area. Copyright © 2020 Tim McMahan. All rights reserved.

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Saddle Creek Records update: Ada Lea joins the roster; new Stef Chura; Treadles gets Document(ed)…

Category: Blog — Tags: , , , — @ 12:45 pm May 14, 2019

Ada Lea is the latest artist signed to Saddle Creek Records.

by Tim McMahan, Lazy-i.com

It’s a quiet Tuesday so might as well catch up on some Saddle Creek Records news…

The label announced May 8 that it signed Montreal singer/songwriter and visual artist Ada Lea. A follower of Sylvia Plath and Nina Simone, Lea’s Saddle Creek debut, What We Say in Private (I added the capitol letters), “began with a need to document the ending of an important romantic relationship. Following a tormented period of staying up all night (sometimes days at a time), frantically painting or writing songs as a means of coping, she journalled for 180 days in the hope of finding herself again.”

Yikes. The first single, “The Party,” has already dropped. The rest of the album comes out July 19.

There’s not a lot online about Ada Lea. No Bandcamp; one song in Spotify. Methinks the Saddle Creek digital team scraped the usual sites of any tracks she might have lying around. There is one live set on YouTube from May 2018.

Here’s the single:

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Seems like we’ve been waiting for the new Stef Chura album for a 100 years. Titled Midnight, it’s slated to drop June 7. It wa produced by Will Toledo of Car Seat Headrest.

To keep you psyched, Stef dropped a new video for single “They’ll Never,” below. This one’s a kicker in the Angel Olsen vein. Chura could have a second career as a country crooner if this one doesn’t work out (but I think it will).

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And I forgot to mention that New Orleans band Treadles is the subject of the eighth installment of Saddle Creek’s Document singles series. Their 7-inch, “Cold” b/w “Iron,” comes out May 24.

This is an interesting statement that came with the press release for the Treadles single:

In the beginning, Saddle Creek was simply a way for us to highlight the music and art community in our hometown of Omaha, NE. Over the years, we have grown and our roster expanded to include artists from all over the world, but we never lost our love for the spirit in which the label was founded. While the scope of the label may have evolved over time, we know there are great music scenes all around the world that are in the same place we were in the beginning: a group of creators coexisting and collaborating within an artistic community that they know is special, but hasn’t quite gotten the spotlight it deserves.

I bring it up only because someone recently asked me if I consider Saddle Creek to be an Omaha label. I do. In fact, I would venture to guess that one of their biggest selling albums so far this year is the new release by The Faint, an Omaha band whose core members are scattered throughout the country, but still… an Omaha band (if you ask me).

Despite having offices in Los Angeles, Saddle Creek will always be considered an Omaha label, just like it continues to be referenced in reviews as “Conor Oberst’s label” even though Conor moved onto other labels years ago. It was Saddle Creek where Conor got his start and where he’ll forever be identified with…

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Read Tim McMahan’s blog daily at Lazy-i.com — an online music magazine that includes feature interviews, reviews and news. The focus is on the national indie music scene with a special emphasis on the best original bands in the Omaha area. Copyright © 2019 Tim McMahan. All rights reserved.

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Saddle Creek nominated for medium-sized label of the year; The Nadas, Basement tonight; ADULT. Saturday…

Category: Blog — Tags: , , , — @ 12:29 pm March 29, 2019

by Tim McMahan, Lazy-i.com

The American Association of Independent Music (A2IM) unveiled the nominees for its 2019 indie music-celebrating Libera Awards and Saddle Creek Records has been nominated as Label of the Year (Medium).

Creek’s competition in the category is Bloodshot, Mom + Pop, Partisan and Yep Roc. Last year Dead Oceans won in the “big” label category, which was for imprints with more than six employees. The org has since revamped its categorization and added a “medium”-sized company category.

Last year Big Thief’s Capacity was among the nominees for Album of the Year and Best American Roots and Folk Album. The album was released by Saddle Creek in 2017.

The Libera Awards will take place in New York City June 20, the culmination of A2IM’s “Indie Week.”

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Onto the weekend…

Emo is still a thing, even in the UK. Tonight Ipswitch emo rockers Basement headline at Slowdown Jr. Joining them are Salt Creek and Dear Neighbor. $18, 9 p.m.

Also tonight, Des Moines folk-rock act The Nadas returns to The Waiting Room. Matt Whipkey and Wasted Highway open the show at 9 p.m. $25.

There’s also a benefit show tonight at The Brothers Lounge for Jordan Jmal Maly. Performing are Iowa City’s Dryad, Houma and Bed Rest. $5, 9 p.m. with all proceeds going to Jordan.

Tomorrow night, Detroit electronic duo ADULT. headlines at Slowdown Jr. The husband-and-wife team Adam Lee Miller and Nicola Kuperus have been doing their style of synth rock since ’96. Their latest full-length, 2018’s This Behavior, was released on DIAS Records. Cult Play and HXXS open at 9 p.m. $15.

And that’s all I got. If I missed your show, put it in the comments section. Have a great weekend.

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Read Tim McMahan’s blog daily at Lazy-i.com — an online music magazine that includes feature interviews, reviews and news. The focus is on the national indie music scene with a special emphasis on the best original bands in the Omaha area. Copyright © 2018 Tim McMahan. All rights reserved.

 

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High Up calls it quits (and goodbye Finks); Saddle Creek makes Paste list; new Jason Steady…

Category: Blog — Tags: , , , , , — @ 1:45 pm January 7, 2019

High Up at The Slowdown, Nov. 28, 2015. The band announced this weekend that it’s breaking up.

by Tim McMahan, Lazy-i.com

Happy Monday. Here are a few news items from the past week…

Yesterday, High Up announced via Facebook that it’s calling it quits. From the post:

“Between beautiful and healthy new additions to Matt and Josh’s families and new journeys to other parts of the country for Orenda, Todd and Christine, we felt it was best to move on and move up, and we wish the same happiness and positive change to you and yours.”

The Finks moving from Omaha is a major blow to the local music scene. All three Finks were among the city’s most talented musicians, and will be greatly missed. Obviously, it could be a long time (if ever) until we see another Closeness concert in this city.

We likely wouldn’t have seen much of Todd next year anyway. The Faint will be busy with the release of Egowerk March 15 on Saddle Creek Records. No announcement has been made concerning a national tour, but you have to believe one is in the making. And Azure Ray just announced a couple January dates in San Francisco and Brooklyn. Could more be on the way?

High Up was one of Omaha’s biggest hopes for breaking through to a larger audience after the release of their debut full-length You Are Here on Team Love Records in early 2018. But after some initial touring, things went quiet for the band. Here’s hoping frontwoman Christine Fink finds a new gig in Savannah — it’d be a shame to never hear those golden pipes again.

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Saddle Creek Records got a nice tip o’ the hat from Paste Magazine last week when it made their list of the 10 best record labels of 2018.

Saddle Creek, the Nebraska label that started as a college class project in 1993, now boasts one of the most focused rosters in indie rock,” said the article, which also lists such stalwart labels as Sub Pop, Merge and Secretly Canadian among the best.

Matador Records topped the list at No. 1, and See Through Dresses’ label, Tiny Engines, was named Boutique Label of the Year. See the full list here.

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Finally, last Thursday Jason Steady (Talking Mountain, Wolf Dealer) released a new video for the track “Deep Lucy.”

Cosmic midwestern music! I’ll be touring again in May with my buddy Chris (Slushy/Lemons/Nobunny/Cowboys/etc.) and this song is part of a forthcoming release,” he said.

Check it below:

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Lazy-i Best of 2018

It’s the final day to ask for a copy of the Lazy-i Best of 2018 Comp CD. The collection includes my favorite indie tunes I’ve come across throughout last year as part of my tireless work as a music critic for Lazy-i. Tracks include songs by J Masic, Sextile, Father John Misty, Campdogzz, Those Far Out Arrows, Boygenius, Your Smith, Nik Freitaz, Ron Gallo, Adrianne Lenker and lots more. The full track listing is here, or listen on Spotify.

To enter to win a copy of the CD either: 1) Send an email with your mailing address to tim.mcmahan@gmail.com, or 2) Let me know you want one via Facebook comments, or 3) Retweet a Lazy-i tweet (If you use social media and win, I’ll reach out later for your mailing address). Hurry, contest deadline is tonight at midnight.

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Read Tim McMahan’s blog daily at Lazy-i.com — an online music magazine that includes feature interviews, reviews and news. The focus is on the national indie music scene with a special emphasis on the best original bands in the Omaha area. Copyright © 2019 Tim McMahan. All rights reserved.

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Review: The Sun-Less Trio ‘The Willow Tree,’ release show tonight; Saddle Creek’s latest ‘Document’ (featuring Hovvdy)…

Category: Reviews — Tags: , , , , — @ 12:37 pm August 29, 2018

The Sun-Less Trio at Reverb Aug. 18, 2017. The band celebrates the release of a new EP tonight at Pageturners Lounge.

by Tim McMahan, Lazy-i.com

Tonight The Sun-Less Trio celebrates the release of a 5-song EP called The Willow Tree at Pageturners Lounge. S-L T is a project helmed by singer/songwriter Mike Saklar, who us old-timers remember for his guitar work in a number of bands including late-’90s post-punk projects Ritual Device and Ravine.

S-LT is geared differently than those metal-tinged efforts, leaning more toward minor-key slow-burners a la Disintegration-era Cure (but with more emphasis on guitars than keyboards). Dim-lit, tonal, emotional and ultimately atmospheric, The Willow Tree turns and sways on a dark edge. Saklar chose to open the collection with “Branches Sway,” the most somber song on the EP, desribed as “A hypnotic monotone rhythm captures the minory chords in a classic manner, only to be destroyed by an unforeseeable middle 8.”

A pity he didn’t come out of the gate with the title track, a rocker centered around a guitar riff and Marc Phillips’ pounding drums (of the dry-echo recording, Saklar does a particularly awesome job with Phillips’ booming stickwork). Drums are right in the middle of “The Station,” a slow-swing dirge that closes out the EP. “Exposure” is another echoing ghost track.

By contrast is the EP’s other highlight, “X-Y-Z,” a self-proclaimed drug song that features Saklar’s best guitar work.

This is one of those recordings that takes multiple plays to absorb. Saklar makes the most of his vocals, using them as a secondary tonal instrument that bends with the chords (lyrics, thankfully, were included in the liner notes I received).

The EP will be available as a 7-inch vinyl. The album’s Bandcamp page includes 14 additional tracks (including different mixes of the EP’s songs). Also on tonight’s bill at Pageturners are Styrofoamy (Jim Schroeder/Colin Duckworth) and Stephen Bartolomei. The free show has an 8:30 start time.

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Saddle Creek Records’s 7-inch “Document Series” continues with a new release by Austin band Hovvdy.

Hovvdy (pronounced “howdy”) is the writing and recording project of a couple drummers, Charlie Martin and Will Taylor. Their debut album, Taster, originally released on Sports Day Records was reissued in 2017 by Double Double Whammy. The follow-up, Cranberry, came out this past February.

“Easy” b/w “Turns Blue” 7-inch drops Oct. 5. Pre-order here.

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Read Tim McMahan’s blog daily at Lazy-i.com — an online music magazine that includes feature interviews, reviews and news. The focus is on the national indie music scene with a special emphasis on the best original bands in the Omaha area. Copyright © 2018 Tim McMahan. All rights reserved.

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Big Thief’s Adrianne Lenker gets Saddle Creek solo; new Tomberlin video…

Category: Blog — Tags: , , , — @ 12:51 pm August 7, 2018

by Tim McMahan, Lazy-i.com

Saddle Creek Records announced this morning that it’s releasing the solo debut by Big Thief’s Adrianne Lenker, titled abysskiss.

Songs can be slippery and following a 2+ years on the road with Big Thief, Lenker felt a growing need to document this particular time in her life in an intimate, immediate way. The result is her new album, abysskiss, out October 5,” sayeth the press release.

The album was co-produced with Luke Temple (Here We Go Magic) and recorded by Gabe Wax (Soccer Mommy, Ought, Palehound). This looks like another big score for Saddle Creek. Pre-order it here.

Speaking of Saddle Creek releases, the next one out of the gate is the Tomberlin’s LP At Weddings, which comes out Friday. Sarah Beth released a new video, “Any Other Way” this morning.

No shows tonight!

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Read Tim McMahan’s blog daily at Lazy-i.com — an online music magazine that includes feature interviews, reviews and news. The focus is on the national indie music scene with a special emphasis on the best original bands in the Omaha area. Copyright © 2018 Tim McMahan. All rights reserved.

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That Saddle Creek at 25 story you may have missed…

Category: Interviews — Tags: , , , — @ 12:49 pm June 28, 2018

Saddle Creek Record’s Benson offices circa sometime in the early 2000s…

by Tim McMahan, Lazy-i.com

There’s been a bit of a lull in music news lately. It’s the end of the month, it’s summer, it’s Omaha.

That being the case, I’m taking this opportunity to post that Saddle Creek at 50 cover story I wrote for the June issue of The Reader. You may already have read it, I know. This is being posted more for posterity’s sake and to ensure there’s always a version online should something unsavory happen to The Reader‘s website. Because Lazy-i is forever….

I promised out-takes from these interviews, but I haven’t had time to put them together. I will eventually (or I’ll use them for other stories). In the meantime, here’s the story, which is also in the current issue of The Reader. Pick up your copy today before the August issue hits the stands…

Saddle Creek at 25
The label that defined indie cool over a decade ago is suddenly cool again.

by Tim McMahan

It was sometime in 1993 when a group of guys pulled their resources together and released a cassette tape by a 13-year-old boy named Conor Oberst. That cassette, titled Water, was the first release on Lumberjack Records, catalog number LBJ-01.

Earlier this year catalog number LBJ-270, the debut album by Stef Chura called Messes, was released on CD, LP, tape and digital by Saddle Creek Records, the company that Lumberjack Records became. The label’s name isn’t the only thing that’s changed over the past 25 years.

Just ask the Saddle Creek founder Robb Nansel. “What’s changed since we started? Everything.”

Nansel reminisced about days gone by and days ahead alongside Amber Carew, the label’s new A&R representative, over beers at The Trap Room, a small bar he co-owns along with music club The Slowdown, which sits about 30 feet south of us.

Like all independent record labels, Lumberjack/Saddle Creek started as a business run out of a bedroom. “At the time, it was very day-to-day, you know?” Nansel said of the early years. “Our concern was ‘How are we gonna put out this Norman Bailer record?’ When I had to write the business plan for an entrepreneurship class, the goal was to sell 10,000 copies of a record. That was the definition of success.”

It would take years for the label to hit that goal. Nansel said he considers the first “real” Saddle Creek release to be LBJ-19 — Bright Eyes — A Collection of Songs Written and Recorded 1995-1997 — which came out in 1998 and was the first Saddle Creek album distributed outside the area.

“Everything before that was just consignment around town — make a hundred copies of a cassette or seven inches or whatever, take them to Homer’s and The Antiquarium and call it a day,” he said.

By 2005, Saddle Creek Records had become one of the most respected and well-known small independent record labels in the country, thanks to the success of its crown-jewel acts — Bright Eyes, The Faint and Cursive. Nansel points to that period as the label’s most successful era in terms of national exposure and record sales, with all three bands releasing albums that sold more than 100,000 copies.

“That was when reporters were flying in from all around the world to write stories about what’s in the drinking water,” Nansel said, “and when Dave Sink told me not to fuck up Omaha.” Sink, the owner/operator of the late, great Antiquarium Record Store, was revered among local musicians.

“He said ‘You’re gonna ruin this town; it’s going to turn into the next Seattle,’ and I said no it’s not. We have a small label, and that’s it. There’s no venues in town, there’s no other record labels. It’s hard to have that much of an impact on a city.”

Nansel knew all the national attention wouldn’t last. “Everything’s cyclical,” he said. “Scenes happen all over the world. It just so happened that people had their microscope on Omaha then. I knew they’d move their microscope somewhere else soon enough.”

But by the time the national spotlight had shifted away from Saddle Creek, the label had built  new offices in the so-called “Lo-Do” area of Omaha above what would become The Slowdown. The staff had grown to seven, including primary partner Jason Kulbel, who had originally come to Omaha to run a nightclub. Meanwhile, the roster of artists had ballooned to well over a dozen. As the label was entering its next chapter, Saddle Creek faced a number of new challenges.

In 2008, Conor Oberst signed to Merge Records, while The Faint started its own record label, Blank.Wav. And for the first time, Saddle Creek had turned its attention away from Omaha and began signing bands that had no real local connection— acts like Tokyo Police Club and Two Gallants and Canadian acts like The Rural Alberta Advantage and Land of Talk. It was a dramatic departure from the early days when Saddle Creek only signed bands that either came from Omaha or were friends of bands already on the label.

At the same time, Saddle Creek finally began to feel the impact of technology that had been ravaging the music industry for years.

Until then, the internet had been the label’s best friend. “It was so important for our growth,” Nansel said. “It allowed Saddle Creek to exist on a national level. When the major labels were yelling ‘The sky is falling,’ our business was growing. They were seeing the massive catalog sales that they’d had for decades plummet. We didn’t have a catalog, so all we saw was growth. There was a point when Saddle Creek could put out anybody’s record, and it would sell at least 5,000 copies,” Nansel said.

Fast forward just a few years and “we were putting out records that were selling like 150 copies,” Nansel said. “This was what everyone had been talking about when they said (the internet) was going to ruin the industry.”

It was a problem no one at the label had an answer for. Instead, Nansel and his staff simply put their heads down and kept going.

“We always felt that solving the music industry’s problem was not something that we as Saddle Creek were going to be able to do,” Nansel said. “That was going to be figured out by tech companies and major labels. All we could do was find bands we were passionate about and work with them and hope everything sorted itself out in time.”

Part of the answer for small independent labels like Saddle Creek has been banding together to create trade organizations that can compete with major labels for the attention of massive tech giants like Apple and Spotify, who now control the industry. The American Association of Independent Music (or A2IM) and global rights agency Merlin Network are two primary examples.

“If Saddle Creek goes up against Apple and tries to get a better deal, Apple tells Saddle Creek to fuck off,” Nansel said. “But if Merlin goes to them representing Beggars Group and Matador and 4AD and hundreds and hundreds of independent labels, then they can get a seat at the table. In a sense, Merlin and A2IM are pushing things forward on behalf of the independent label community.”

While signing those non-Omaha-related acts, Saddle Creek continued to release albums from old favorites like Cursive, The Good Life and Azure Ray while signing locals and friends like Icky Blossoms, Twinsmith and pals Big Harp. Nansel said despite new struggles to generate income via music sales, the label never signed an act with the intent of striking it rich.

“I guess I’d be naive to say that (album sales) are completely not in my mind,” he said. “There might be some super-aggressive weird punk record that I love, but then realize we can’t do anything with it. We wouldn’t be doing them a service by working with them. It would be a disastrous relationship. But I don’t think we’ve ever signed something because we thought it would sell. We have to like it first and figure out if it’s a good partnership.”

Has making money ever been a motivation?

“No,” Nansel said. “I think that’s boring. You have to work with these people every day. Imagine having to work with a band that you don’t like. You might make money, but that doesn’t sound very fun.”

Sticking with that philosophy would eventually pay off. In October 2014, Saddle Creek signed Philly band Hop Along. The folk-rock four-piece fronted by singer/songwriter Frances Quinlan hit pay dirt with its third full-length, Painted Shut, released in May of the following year. Songs like album opener “The Knock” and “Well-dressed” earned millions of Spotify plays, while publications like AllMusic.com called Quinlan “among the most captivating rock singers of her generation.”

Next Saddle Creek signed Brooklyn band Big Thief in February 2016. The four-piece, fronted by Adrianne Lenker, saw its debut, Masterpiece, released in May 2016 to a hail of critical huzzahs, but it was the follow-up, Capacity, released in June 2017, that really caught fire, making it onto a number of national critics’ annual top-10 lists. The infectious single “Shark Smile” would gain heavy rotation on nationally broadcasted (via satellite) radio station Sirius XMU.

Brooklyn singer/songwriter Sam Evian (a.k.a. Sam Owens) would come next in June 2016 and in March 2017, Saddle Creek launched its “Document” singles series that featured unreleased music from artists outside the Saddle Creek roster, starting with bands Posse, Palehound, Hand Habits and Wilder Maker.

The label was entering a third life that included opening a satellite office in Los Angeles’ Eagle Rock neighborhood with new-hire Amber Carew, the label’s first-ever A&R representative responsible for talent scouting and artist development. One of Carew’s first run-ins with Saddle Creek was when the label signed Sam Evian out from under her while she was employed at label Anti- Records.

“At the time I was like ‘Saddle Creek? I didn’t know they were still doing stuff,'” Carew said. “I was in my own bubble. Then I looked at the label and realized that Saddle Creek was putting out records I like and doing new things.”

Carew’s first signing for Saddle Creek, Detroit singer/songwriter Stef Chura, who joined the label last November and whose debut album, Messes, was re-released by Saddle Creek in February, said she was familiar with the label in high school because of Bright Eyes, who she counts as an influence.

“When (the signing) was announced, I got a lot of ‘They’re still a label?’ questions and asked if I was going to meet Conor Oberst,” Chura said. “I love a lot of their stuff, new and old; I love what they’re doing now. There are separate eras (of the label) that are attracting different audiences. They’ve always signed artists with a lot of integrity, really good songwriters. It’s a big compliment to be on the label.”

At around the same time Chura joined Saddle Creek, the label signed Chicago rockers Young Jesus, whose debut, titled S/T, they re-released in February. The album is a departure for the label, with tracks that range from six minutes to over 12 minutes, jangly noise collages and epic jams that could be filed under “experimental.” Far from a commercially influenced acquisition.

“We’re not playing the analytics game,” Nansel said. “We’re not seeing who’s got a bunch of followers on Facebook.”

“If that were the case, we would have never signed Young Jesus,” Carew adds, “or Stef. I’ve made a concerted effort to talk about the new era of Saddle Creek. When I talk to new bands, I ask them if they want to be part of it.”

Nansel said plans call for doubling the number of releases the label puts out next year. He discussed new acts that Saddle Creek is either about to sign or announce (including an Omaha band), many of which will be unknown to most fans. “They’re not even necessarily known within their communities,” he said. “They’re just brand new bands. The goal is to give people their first shot at putting out a record. It’s hard to build a band from the ground up. It’s fun. It’s the most rewarding thing possible.”

So how does a label like Saddle Creek judge success in 2018? “It’s all about streams,” Nansel said. “It’s not really about physical sales anymore. I mean, that’s an important piece of it for us and our fan base. We still like to sell records, but the number of streams is the barometer of success — how many people are listening to your band online.”

And while getting your artists’ songs added to a Spotify curated playlist is a boon, Nansel said the key is for listeners to add albums and artists to their personal lists. “That’s how you retain that listener,” he said.

Streaming also is what pays the bills these days, specifically with checks from Spotify and Apple Music. “Those two primarily,” Nansel said. “Pandora and YouTube not so much. It’s like real money now. Our Spotify check is our biggest check every month; they’re bigger than ADA, our (physical) distributors.”

Good thing, too, because the label has a lot of mouths to feed. Nansel said the staff is the largest it’s ever been with the addition of Marketing Director Katie Nowak, who literally joined the label the day of this interview. Nowak, a New Yorker, will be joining the Los Angeles staff. The Omaha staff consists of C.J. Olson, radio/project management; Jadon Ulrich, art director; Jeff Tafolla, licensing, and Sarah Murray, retail/distribution. Nate Welker, digital marketing, lives in Seattle. Jason Kulbel, who manages Slowdown and other properties, stepped away from the label years ago.

Why does the Saddle Creek bother to keep an Omaha presence? Nansel, who’s lived in LA for nearly four years, points to the staff who live here. “I have a lot of roots in Omaha,” he said. “It’s an important place to me.”

Nansel, who turns 43 this year, never thought he’d still be running the label 25 years after releasing that Water cassette.

“That’s because I’m not a planner in that way,” he said. “I never saw myself doing anything else, either. People kept making music. We kept caring about it. We kept having opportunities to do stuff with it. As long as that happens, why would we stop?”

First published in The Reader, June 2018. Copyright © 2018 Tim McMahan. All rights reserved.

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Read Tim McMahan’s blog daily at Lazy-i.com — an online music magazine that includes feature interviews, reviews and news. The focus is on the national indie music scene with a special emphasis on the best original bands in the Omaha area. Copyright © 2018 Tim McMahan. All rights reserved.

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