Where did you grow up?
I grew up in downtown Chicago, going to the Metro, Wax Trax Records and all that.
How did you get started in the music business?
The first job I had in the music business was as an intern at Alligator Records one day a week. Because I was an intern there, I got a job at a record store. Then I went to college in Wisconsin, so I just continued to work at record stores all through college. I also played guitar in bands from when I was 16 or 17 until about four years ago when I got my first A&R job. That whole time I was always working too, at record stores for a while and then I booked shows in college. I opened a booking agency in Chicago when I moved back there after school. I booked indie rock and punk rock bands' tours.
What got you into booking tours?
I was in a band and playing a lot of gigs. It was hard to hold down a job because I was gone every weekend. We played Thursday, Friday, and Saturday all around the Midwest. So I just thought, well I'm booking us, I'll just book friends too. It just started from there. I booked tours all over the whole country and Canada. Eventually I had Morphine--which I guess was my biggest band--as well as other bands like Silkworm and Jimmy Eat World. I did that for four or five years. I booked hundreds and hundreds of tours.
How did you end up doing A&R?
I was in another band after that first band, and we actually got a little record deal on a label called Grass Records out of New York. It was a little college, indie rock label that had Brainiac. We loved Brainiac, so we signed with their label. That band was called Nectarine. We kind of started out like Sonic Youth meets Pavement, and by the end, we were more like if Ornette Coleman played guitar for the Velvet Underground (laughs). The popularity just diminished. We actually were doing alright for an indie band. We could play some cities and have like a hundred people show up. And then we got more into improv and jazz and did what we thought was really cool music, but no one else agreed (laughter). So then the label was bought by someone. They went from indie distribution to BMG Distribution as we were going further and further out there. The label didn't fit us anymore. I actually went to New York to talk to them about leaving the label. They had long ago fired the person that had signed us. They said that's fine, we have too many bands anyway. So it was very friendly, and I was still booking a couple of their bands. I said, "What are you guys going to do for an A&R person?" They said, "We're looking." I said, "That's what I want to do." I had put together this Tom Petty tribute record that had Everclear and some other rock bands on it--maybe half the bands on there wound up being signed. Everclear was the only one that was big. They said, "Wow, that Tom Petty record sold more than any of our records. Why don't you work for us?" That became WindUp Records. The first band that we signed was Creed, six weeks after I got there I think.
What's the Creed signing story?
They had been sent over to us by Mark Fisher, who works for Bill McGathy, the rock radio promotion guy. Mark Fisher's wife was the head of our radio department. They had already played it for every A&R person in New York. They did a showcase in New York and everyone hated them: "They're like Pearl Jam rip offs. Who wants this shit?" But we didn't know anything about it. We were so out of the loop that we had no idea. Nor did we have any idea that we weren't supposed to be signing rock bands, because that's when everybody was signing electronica. "Rock Is Dead" was the cover of Spin Magazine the week after we signed them. Then the Chemical Brothers came out, and we went, "Oh wow." We didn't know. I was still living in Chicago, basically, and still in a rock band. When you're in a rock band and you tour around, all you hear is classic rock radio, because that's all there is in the Midwest. So you're hearing Pearl Jam and Stone Temple Pilots every day. So to me, that music wasn't dated. It was current. There were four of us at the label that signed all the bands together, and none of the other three people in the signing decision process had any idea of what was going on musically. So we were all just, hey, here's a great band. They're on the radio. McGathy loves them. And they are already selling 300 or 400 records a week just in Tallahassee. It was just out of control -- more than they could handle. They were a band that had done their record at their producer's house. Their manager was a friend of the guy who promoted the radio stations. He put it on the air, and the lines lit up immediately. No one had heard of the band. I think they were playing at like a TGI Fridays because they couldn't even get gigs in town. Their manager also booked a club, so he started putting them on shows. Then they started selling out 500-700 people. We flew down to see them a week after they had just been in New York where every label had seen them except us. We just loved them and said, "Let's do it!" They came to New York the next week, and we signed them there. The next weekend we started the record.
So you didn't know all the other labels had already seen them and passed?
No. We were so out of touch with what was going on, there was no baggage. And not everyone had passed. A couple of labels had said, "We'll do this, but we can't do it until next year. Our schedule is full," and this was in May. We had nothing scheduled at all. We had no releases. This was going to be our only release and we could start now.
Most A&R departments are really concerned with what other labels are doing.
We wouldn't have done it because everyone had passed. Honestly we didn't know anyone at the time, and you hear these songs and . . . I put in the tape and I thought I had accidentally turned on the radio. I thought, is this a tape or is it the radio? I wasn't sure. And then I checked and realized it was the tape and said, "Oh my god."
How many did that first album end up selling?
I'm not sure, 6 million maybe. And the second one sold around 10 or 11 million. It was crazy. Because you say things like, "Oh this will sound good on the radio" when you're mixing it, and you take it out to your car and listen to it in the car trying to get some of the radio feel. Then you realize it's actually going to be on the radio. I worked on records for years that maybe 2,000 people heard.
Having had that experience as your first signing, knowing what you know now, do you try to "stay out of the loop?" Do you try not to think about radio and what the current trend is?
No, we think about radio definitely, because these guys were on the radio. They were going on their own, and they were selling records on their own, and selling out shows on their own. With no record company, they were doing that. So that tells me that that's always something to look for, no matter what else is happening in music. Staying out of the loop is harder to do now, obviously. Still nearly every demo that you ever, ever hear is bad. They're just plain terrible. I feel bad because I was one of those bad demos years ago, sending it in to record companies. You get a write up in the paper, and (A&R) people ask you for a demo. And then they're like, "This is terrible." People come to see you play at CB's and go, "Wow, you are really bad," you know. Now I'm one of those guys who has to tell the band that they're just not that good. The thing is that the public later is going to decide. No one wants to spend 20 bucks on a CD if it's not great. I don't do that if I'm not sure I want to buy it. That's 20 bucks! And I have an expense account to buy records! I still don't buy that many records because so many people are just making bad music. I think so much music just doesn't come from a pure place in their heart. Music should be an expression of self, and it isn't for most of these musicians. It's more like they're just trying to do something. They're like, "Let's try to write a hooky melodyÖ Oh this is a good interval. Let's sing that interval." And, "Let's sing a song about my parents breaking up. That's what people are buying, so maybe that will be good." That's the feeling I get. Whether the band thinks they're doing something that is expressing themselves or not, to me, the listener, I don't think most bands are. I think that's where most bands go wrong, and that's why most bands don't sell records. They're just not making mind-blowingly great music.
What do you look for then when you're listening to a demo or a new act? What is it that catches your attention?
I look for the sense that you know the person or people involved after you've listened to it. I look for a sense of: Do I feel like they're in the room with me even though I'm just listening to a demo?
Do you care much about recording quality on demos?
No. Not at all. I don't care about recording quality. But I do care a lot about if they have a following. If you go to see a band in their hometown and there are only 50 people there, why the hell would you sign them? Unless it's their first show or something. Then it's okay. Other than in 1992-1994 in Chicago when tons and tons of bands were getting signed, the only ones that got signed were typically the ones that could sell out the Metro. If you could sell 1,000 tickets, the next time you played, there would be a couple of A&R people there. It just makes sense. I think that a lot of people have missed that lately. They seem to have this feeling of, well we can just ram this on the radio and make it happen. I just don't think that happens very often. It does happen occasionally, once or twice a year. But a lot of those bands that get signed and bomb don't deserve to do any better because they're not really making great music. If a band is a hard rock band and they can make me want to listen to them instead of Back In Black, that's a good band. If they're trying to do new music and they can make me want to listen to them instead of Kid A, then that's a good band. You have to be able to replace some other music in someone's life, otherwise, who is going to buy it?
The standard for all musicians is the radio and the records in their own collections.
Exactly. Turn on whatever your local radio station is that could play your kind of music, and ask yourself: are you that good? Do you have a song that stands up to whatever song is the #1 most requested? If you're a crazy rock band, do you have something that stands up to System Of A Down?
You signed Sigur Ros. What's that signing story?
Their records had been imported into New York when I was living there. It was just a band that a bunch of people were talking about. When I left Wind Up, my wife and I went on a vacation. For whatever reason, I decided that we had to stop in Iceland. We took a two and a half month vacation, and our first stop was Sweden to see some friends there. But I just decided that if you fly Iceland Air, you can stop over in Iceland for a few days. A lot of it was because of that band, Sigur Ros. I just thought they were so cool and so different, and it just seemed like I wanted to go there and see what it was. When else do you get a vacation where you can just do something crazy like go to a new country and see what it's like? I didn't know anyone there, didn't know anything about it. I just got off the plane and started walking around. I didn't actually own the record because it was like $35 on import. I just never bothered to buy it. I had only seen one song live on the NME website. It was like nothing I had ever heard before. Then when I did finally get the record, I listened to it on the plane leaving Iceland. I couldn't even sit still. I became obsessed with this band. Their music just moved me like hadn't happened in such a long time. I just thought it was the best music in the world.
What's its relationship to radio?
None. Right now it doesn't fit anywhere on the radio.
So why sign it?
Because when a band is making the best music in the world, how could you not sign it? This music is just so unique, and so beautiful, and so different, and so compelling. It pulls you in. Suddenly you put on the record, and you're in their world. You put it on in your house, but you're in their house. My hope is for this band that they will be able to change things. That even though their songs are eight minutes long, a lot of the TV shows that have live music will want to have them on because of the buzz and the ticket sales and record sales. Hopefully one of those TV shows is going to say, "We'll do it." Certainly not on this first record. Maybe on the second or third. Maybe Saturday Night Live will say, "We'll let them play a seven minute song. We just won't do two musical spots, we'll do one." Or Letterman will say, "We'll give them seven minutes. We'd give a big actor seven minutes if he had a new movie," or whatever.
Did you see them live before you signed them?
Oh yes, definitely.
Do you go out a lot now to see bands live?
Unfortunately, I don't go out as much as I did when I lived in New York. I think I've learned a valuable lesson, which is going back to what I said earlier, and that is that most bands just aren't very good. I still have that thing where every time I walk into the Viper Room to see a band, or walk into CB's, or put on a demo in the office or in my car, I always think this could be IT. This could be the band that is going to change my life. Every time, every package I open, every show I go to see, I have that anticipation, and I've been disappointed 99.9-percent of the time. I still go out at least two or three times a week, but certainly not five or six like I used to.
What can a band in Peoria do to get your attention?
If they were to sell out the Madison Theatre in Peoria, which I think has 1,500 seats, and get on the radio station there, I would go there to see them. What that implies is that they have an amazing song or songs. They know how to write songs that get people interested. You know what I mean? You write songs that get people to rally around your band where people say, "This is my band. I love this band." And why do you love a band? Because of their songs. And whether it's a typical pop song that you hear on the radio that has all the great parts in it. Or whether it's a non-traditional song like System Of A Down writes. Technically, it might not be a song according to the John Denver songbook, but it's still a great song. It's still able to get people to say, "This is my favorite band. This is what I'm all about. I'm about this band." Why are they someone's favorite band? Because they write songs that you can take to heart. People say, "Oh my god, that's my song. That's me."