8-Tracks are Cool. So’s Jobriath. I want a Jobriath 8-Track. But until I get one – the Eschatone Story

a3857574067_2Among the wealth of archive releases that have appeared so far this year… or any other year, say a certain segment of the glam rock community… surely the most exciting, and certainly the most unexpected, was the full album’s worth of Jobriath demos and pre-fame out-takes unleashed just recently by the Eschatone label.

Their emergence has been a long time coming.  But Eschatone is nothing if not patient.  And, perhaps, just a little batty.  Check out their catalog next time you’re browsing the web.  We are well accustomed today to labels releasing vinyl in a variety of size and color configurations, and Eschatone are no exception to that.

But how about 8-Track cartridges?  How about cylinders?  Let’s find out how they explain those away.  But first, let’s start off with some background… how Davis and partner Joe Slevin got the ball rolling in the first place, back in 2006.

Jed: “We started Eschatone with day job money—I’m a graphic designer and Joe works in IT.  That much hasn’t changed!”

Joe: “My background is a healthy mix of computer geek realist crossed with optimistic entrepreneur.”

Jed: “I’d been self-releasing my own music since 1993, with stints on a couple of indie labels and some work as a sideman for various acts.  I had a reasonable understanding of what it took to get an album produced, pressed and released.  A few friends of mine got major label deals in the early 2000s, and I was surprised to learn how little money actually changed hands in those situations—more than we could match, sure, but we realized that if we pooled our income and kept our roster small, we could provide a pretty nice opportunity for a couple of artists a year.”

Joe: “I’ve spent a lot of my life surrounded by really talented musicians, and have mostly been in the role of the super fan who cares enough about the artist to give them genuine feedback and advice from a non-musician audience member point of view. Becoming a partner in a record label seemed to be the next step in supporting and being part of an art that I love.”

Jed: “I think Joe and our erstwhile third partner, who were both supportive of my musical projects, expected we would just use Eschatone to put out my stuff.  But I kept petitioning for other bands I liked.  We were four or five artists in before we released anything of mine.”

The label started out as a CD-only enterprise although they knew that would not last.  As Joe puts it, “This was right about the time digital got CDs locked in a sleeper hold, and most of the old ways of the music industry were thrown for a loop.  It didn’t take long to see that the age of the CD was coming to a close.”

Jed: Our first release was puddleskinwaving, a CD by Michael Bassett.  I’ve known Michael since the mid-nineties; he’d recorded this fantastic album back then and self-released it.  I thought it deserved more so we did a reissue.  Vinyl had only just begun to reemerge, and we didn’t feel like we had the experience to pull it off, so we decided to focus on beautifully-packaged CDs.

Joe: “We tried to make CDs that were products that you’d want to own for themselves, in addition to the music.”

Jed: “After Bassett, we put out CDs by two very different punk bands, The Visitors and wax.on wax.off.  The Visitors were old-school garage rock; wax.on wax.off was contemporary pop-punk.  Those releases happened to coincide with a brief rebirth of Punk magazine, so we bought some real estate within and I was able to have fun designing ads in the classic Punk fumetti style.  That was an awesome moment!

“Our first experiment with vinyl was a 7″ co-release with JAXART in 2007.  It was JAXART’s first-ever project—a single by The Valley Arena.  Not an auspicious beginning; we didn’t do enough homework and went with the first “manufacturer” we found.  They turned out to be more of a print broker, with no real control over the output, and we blew our street date by over a month.  We learned that if we were going to try vinyl again, we had to better understand the process and options.

“When it was time to do our first vinyl full-length, in 2008, I did tons of research and discovered that we were operating in a sort of Wild West.  One reputable printer manufactured jackets but couldn’t do inner sleeves, because their folding machinery had been out of use so long it no longer worked properly.  Nobody could make center labels except a handful of printers who did nothing BUT center labels.  There was also the matter of mastering.  That album, Michael Bassett’s Soft Verges, was recorded live to two-track at Electrical Audio, sequenced and spliced into master reels in Brooklyn, and mastered by Kevin Gray in LA.  No backup copies, just irreplaceable tapes zigzagging across the country.  It was so nerve-wracking.  The process has, mercifully, evolved a lot since then—many more manufacturing options at every step.”

Joe: “I have a fondness for our earliest artists, some of whom are now defunct.  One of my favorite releases was our German geek punk rock band wax.on wax.off.  We put out their album A Lecture on Geek Mythology in 2006. Turns out the release might have been a little premature, as it came out ahead of the Geek chic trends.”

Eschatone’s current roster is equally eye-catching, though.

Jed: “Brian Dewan is a composer, visual artist, furniture maker and part-time member of the Elephant 6 Collective.  He wrote the music for Blue Man Group’s Tubes on instruments he invented.  For Eschatone, Brian is releasing what he calls his Humanitarium Series of recordings: historic public-domain works he’s uncovered, recorded on old parlor instruments, and sorted into thematic collections.  Brian’s first compilation of these was called Words of Wisdom; more are coming.

“Juston Stens was a member of Dr. Dog until he got the itch to go solo, took off on his motorcycle and collaborated with musical friends across the country.  The resulting album, Share the Road, is the subject of a documentary called I Lay Where I Fall which is doing the film festival circuit now.  We just released Share the Road digitally and we hope to work with Juston on more.

“Peg is the solo project of Sheridan Riley, a wonderfully gifted songwriter and multi-instrumentalist from Long Beach, CA who is best known as the drummer for Avi Buffalo.  Sheridan is quirky and awesome on guitar, but behind the kit she can do pretty much anything.  We once played a session together with Chuck Rainey on bass; Sheridan was only 19 at the time but she channeled Bernard Purdy so convincingly, Chuck did a double-take!

“Hand Habits is a band from our home base of Albany, NY, led by Meg Duffy.  Meg writes these heartbreaking songs that, for me, push some of the same buttons as Jobriath’s more somber ballads—like “Inside” and “Little Dreamer”.  She is also a stunningly creative and virtuosic guitarist, able to weave textural atmospherics, shred stinging leads, and turn on a dime from complex jazzy phrasing to raw Velvet Underground chiming.  We released two of her songs (15 minutes of music!) on one side of a split 10″ record with Peg.”

a1993353097_2Davis’s own catalog, meanwhile, is headed up by the remarkable Cutting Room Floor album, and has been rolling since the early ’90s.  “I play keyboards and try to sing.  Over the years I’ve worked in many genres, with many bands, and had lots of musical adventures.  Right now I’m focusing on two projects.  The first is a 40-song recording of a musical play I wrote with my friend [artist] Arturo Vega called Rise And Shine; we had been working on it since 2000 and Arturo passed away last year with quite a bit left unrealized.  Finishing Rise And Shine for Arturo is a huge responsibility—he was the most important person ever in my life—and I’m trying to make sure it’s really spectacular.

“The second is a reissue of Blowing Shit Up, an album I put out in 1998 with my band Collider.  BSU has become known as the first-ever record in the Electroclash genre, but it’s been out of print since the turn of the century, so we’re going to do a deluxe 2-disc set with a second LP of all the songs from the album remixed by various producers from across the EDM timeline, ’90s to contemporary.  That’s shaping up to be awesome; we have remixes from Pop Will Eat Itself, Keith Hillebrandt, Dan Book, The Lo-Fidelity Allstars, Mark Plati and Reeves Gabrels, Avi Buffalo, and others.”

Does Slevin have any musical preoccupations?  “I play a mean kazoo and my hand clapping is only slightly off-time.” Look out for an album soon.  Or maybe an 8-Track.  Now, personally, I will argue (and have, in a variety of printed sources) that a well-cared-for 8-Track packs at least as much sonic detail and punch as any CD, DVD or Neil Young-shaped sound file thing.  But even I will admit that 8-Tracks are scarcely staple catalog items.  Let alone cylinders.  Tell us more!  Beginning with, how do yu even get them manufactured?

Joe: :It really depends on how well you maintain your time machine!”

Jed: “I love immersive listening experiences with packaging that provides complementary visual and tactile elements to accompany the music.  I just got the Zeppelin III reissue the other day, and I spun that crazy cardboard wheel for the entire duration of the album.  It never stopped being awesome!

“Odd formats are fun, and even if you don’t have the means to play them, they can still deepen the meaning of a release.  For example, we put out my track “Yuppie Exodus From Dumbo” on cylinder because the song is in part about antiquarian fetishes.  The format becomes part of the story.  (For folks without access to a cylinder player, there’s an accompanying download of both mono and stereo mixes of the track, as well as a recording of the cylinder being played on an Edison, so it’s not like they just bought a pretty round brick.)  Plus it happens to be a gorgeous package.  Michael Doret did the design, and signed and numbered the lot.  Michael also designed our vinyl center labels.

“For me, one of the greatest joys of Eschatone has been getting to work with so many amazing visual artists on our packaging.  Michael Doret, Victor Moscoso, Mike Allred, Arturo Vega, Brian Dewan, Peter Bagge, Hatch Show Print… in 2008, just as we were switching to vinyl, Zakka art space in Brooklyn put up a gallery show of Eschatone packaging, ad and poster art.  We were ecstatic and honored—it really felt like we were accomplishing what we’d set out to do visually and experientially, and this encouraged us to push further.

“It takes digging to find manufacturers willing to do esoteric formats, but they’re out there! “

Joe: “If you look around, you will find people strongly passionate about things others might consider odd or obsolete—these inspired and sometimes a little obsessive types.”

Jed: “Our cylinders were made by the Vulcan Cylinder Record Company; they’re enthusiasts who take the format very seriously and do wonderful work.  Our 8-track source is in semi-retirement, which is a bummer; I’m hoping he’ll eventually reopen for business, because he also does a fantastic job.”

And so to Jobriath.  How… where… when… why… and so on.

Jed: “I remember reading about Jobriath in high school.  What’s more satisfying to an idol-smashing Gen X slacker than tales of failed hype?  But there was never any audio—just stories.  Years later, I made some older friends who had been on the scene in the days of the infamous Times Square billboard, and one night at dinner a couple of them went off on ‘that sad queen.’  The impression I got was that Jobriath was awful, a joke.  Didn’t exactly motivate me to track down his music!”

Tell me about it.  I remember back in the mid-1980s, writing for one of the English weekly papers.  I mentioned Jobriath in an article about another great Glam band, Sexagisma, and the editor actually cornered me later… “hmmm, I didn’t think I would ever see that name again.  Especially in my paper.”  Or words to that effect.

Jed: “In 2012, I came across an online playlist that included one Jobriath track, ‘Heartbeat.’  I couldn’t believe how great that song was!  It was so good, I needed to hear more.  And there was more: two full albums’ worth, each song more awesome than the last.  It really upset me that this guy, who as far as I could tell was a superhuman genius, was not only not a household name but synonymous with failure to the few who had actually heard of him.

“I was doing a weekly radio show on a local college station at the time; that week I played both Jobriath albums straight through.  I had to—I needed for someone, anyone, to hear that music the way I did.  Halfway through my show, I noticed that somebody called Jobriath A.D. had tweeted that they were listening.  That’s how I learned about Kieran Turner’s documentary, which I then drove three hours to see in a film festival on Long Island.  Such a powerful, incredible film.

“There were Jobriath bootlegs in circulation, with even more fantastic songs—the guy never wrote a bad song, in my opinion—but the sound quality was universally terrible.  I decided to take a crack at tracking down the masters and giving them a proper release if possible, mainly because I figured that was the only way I’d ever hear hi-fi versions.

a2903049862_2“It took me about a year to locate and negotiate licenses for the masters.  There were a few false starts, issues of ownership and nuances of intellectual property law that needed to be properly researched.  The age of the compositions themselves, and the fact that the songs had never been published, created certain legal quandaries—I could see how, even with the master tapes in hand, no one would dare put the stuff out.  But the answers were out there, and I was eventually able to solve those issues and come away with the proper mechanical licenses.

“When I was a young songwriter, I got sharked by a couple of savvy old music businessmen; they were able to lift some of my publishing rights with clever legalese compounded by my own ignorance.  I think I was 23 at the time.  Anyway, after that, I hit the books hard and made myself familiar with the rights, rules and laws of music publishing and intellectual property.  If not for my sour experience with those sharks, there probably wouldn’t be a Jobriath record out now.

“One thing I learned making the Jobriath record is how many people take him seriously.  It’s heartening, but also frustrating because everyone has his or her own perspective on who Jobriath was and how his work should be presented.  And these folks are split into factions—if you side with one, you might piss off another.  But the bottom line is, there are entities without whose blessing you cannot release Jobriath rarities, period.  In the end, what made As The River Flows possible was kindness and cooperation.

Joe: “It was really Jed’s drive to get these albums out that made the Jobriath releases happen.  He may be modest about it, but let me tell you—for a very long time, our meetings about the Jobriath tracks sounded like we were discussing the details of a lost treasure scavenger hunt murder mystery!

“Time after time, Jed would run into dead ends trying to find usable copies of these lost works of art, while also attempting to discover who actually held the rights to them.  I’ve gotten the impression that folks think we just decided to put out some never-released Jobriath tracks and everyone involved just fell in line to make it happen, but seriously, these releases were only possible because Jed wouldn’t give up on them.”

You’ve been up and running for eight years now.  What have you learned since you started, that you wish you’d known beforehand… and is there anything you’re glad you didn’t know?  Is it easy running a record label?

Joe:  “Sure it is!  Just spend some of your trust fund or your parents’ money to print up a few business cards.  Hand those out to musical cuties, maybe put out an album or two, and then go out of business.”

a1350526810_2Jed: “Artists are so mercurial—which makes them a terrible investment!  You have to love the music so much, want it to exist so badly, that no amount of navel-gazing bullshit can faze you.  We’ve had bands break up within weeks of their record coming out, or change direction and disown music we’d dumped thousands into.  That’s thousands of dollars that we went to work every day to earn, with the only results an immovable record and an artist blaming us for not making them famous.  You need thick skin, and an appreciation for small victories.  Helping make something happen that you think is great is always a win, regardless of what comes after.

“I’ve also developed empathy for the labels, managers and collaborators who’ve had to put up with my “artistic” nonsense—or refused to do so—over the years.  I can totally appreciate their perspective now!

“One thing that’s made it easier to keep Eschatone going is that it isn’t the family store.  As long as we keep working our day gigs, the pressure to bring a financial return is off so we can stay flexible and take chances on things we like.  We can also take our time and make sure we get the little stuff right.

“Also, it’s important to know what’s possible.  When it comes to making a package special and cool, there are so many resources, special effects, processes and techniques available, but you can only use them if you know they exist.  A background in print design helps.

“On the other hand, sometimes it also helps to not know when something is considered impossible—you may end up surprising everyone!”

Joe: “The truth is, this is a very hard business.  I’ve learned that you have to deal with all of the worst aspects of commercial retail industry.  Labels that see their artists as commodities to exploit tend to have a more stable business plan!  It is a lot harder to succeed financially if you care about the art and genuinely want to get some amazing and overlooked work out to the public, but that’s the reason we became a part of this industry and it’s on that basis that we measure success.”

So, what’s next?

Jed: “Our next full-length release will be the Collider Blowing Shit Up reissue in late fall, and we’re currently negotiating the liberation of a couple of early ’70s masters from the vault of a classic but sadly defunct label.  But we want to be about more than reissues and ephemera. “

a1109934253_2Joe: “We’re going to keep trying to put out the work of the musicians who have made fans of us.

Jed: “There are so many great new acts out there who deserve to be heard.  We hope to continue giving our favorites that opportunity.  10″ records are perfect for that.  We love the 10″ format.  We don’t see the 10″ as a mini LP, but rather as a big brother to the 7″—specifically, the split 7″.  Doing 10″ splits means we can allow one artist per side an EP’s worth of material.  It’s cost-effective and the package is unique and striking.  We’ve got a few more of these coming with some very interesting pairings.”

Joe: “And I’ve been keeping tabs on a talented guitarist and am just waiting for the right project.  Maybe a release on minidisc?”

Hmmm, neat idea.  But Digital Compact Cassette would be better.

Leave a Reply