Thursday, April 17, 2008
Peter Jesperson: The Teenage Kicks interview (part one)
Peter Jesperson is an indie rock superhero. As manager of the legendary Oar Folkjokeopus record store in Minneapolis, he was a noted tastemaker and all-round rock and roll good guy. Then, as co-owner of Twin Tone records, he stumbled across four guys who called themselves The Replacements. Immediately blown away, he signed the band and managed them for the next several years. Now Sr. VP/A&R at New West Records in Los Angeles, Jesperson oversees a stable of artists including Buddy Miller, Ben Lee and Old 97s, among others.
In addition to his work at New West, lately Jesperson has been preparing The Replacements’ four Twin Tone albums – Sorry Ma, Forgot to Take Out the Trash; Stink; Hootenanny; and Let it Be – for expanded reissue on Rhino Records, consulting with the band’s three surviving founding members, Paul Westerberg, Tommy Stinson and Chris Mars. These spiffed-up indie rock classics come out on Tuesday, April 22, and Jesperson is also at work on forthcoming reissues of the albums the band made for Sire Records. Teenage Kicks’ Trip McClatchy bumped into Peter recently at the South-By-Southwest music extravaganza, and later talked to him by phone (on 4/5) for this three-part interview. Today, Jesperson talks about New West, his lifelong love of music, and the current state of the business.
Teenage Kicks: Did you have a good time at SXSW?
Peter Jesperson: You know, I did have a good time. I would say it was the first year where I was not psyched about going ahead of time, but, yet when I got there I had a ball. To be honest, this Replacements project has been sort of all-encompassing, as it should be. It’s really like having two full time jobs at once. The New West job is nothing to sneeze at. We’re a wholly independent label, very proudly so, but we don’t have assistants and I have 20 artists that I look after. The owner, Cameron Strang, and I handle the A&R but I do most of the day to day stuff. It has gotten sort of nail-biting since I started really working in earnest on these Replacements things last August. It’s a labor of love and so far I’m maintaining sanity. I just submitted my tracks for the Sire albums yesterday and Tommy is coming over to pick up CDs with the material on them. He’s been the filter for this, in a way, because he and I are so much closer. He lives here, for one thing. I don’t talk to Paul that often and I talk to Chris twice a year or something. Paul’s manger, Darren Hill, is also involved; he coordinates things with Paul. And Paul… sometimes he wants to talk and sometimes he doesn’t, and I respect that.
TK: You grew up in Minnesota. Dylan, Prince, The Replacements and The Hold Steady – all from the same general area. Is there something in the water out there?
P: It’s hard to say – I think there’s great stuff happening all over the place, all the time, and sometimes we hear it and sometimes we don’t. A great example in my past was when we had another writer who worked at Oarfolk (our record store) who got a test pressing of The Ramones’ first album. We put it on the turntable and we all went “Wow! Cool! Someone else is doing what the Suicide Commandos are doing”. The Commandos were Minneapolis' first real punk band. The quick description to me would be comic book rock. There was something powerful yet with a great sense of humor as well. I think that maybe there was a Prince or a Replacements in St. Louis and their paths didn’t lead them to Trip McClatchy’s ears. Another funny thing about New West is Cameron Strang is also a great music fan, but he thinks there’s like 50 classic rock albums of all time. And I think there are thousands. It’s just a different perspective. I hear this all the time from people who used to be into music and now they’re grown up and have families and they say, I just don’t hear records that are as cool as when I was growing up. I don’t want to insult those people or anything, but I don't think that's true. There’s always something great happening and if you can’t find it than you’re just not looking hard enough. And for god’s sakes, if you can’t find something contemporary that knocks your socks off, there’s gotta be thousands and thousands of old things that you missed. There’s no reason – that’s like saying there aren’t any good books around to read. That's just an impossibility, a physical impossibility.
TK: You have to be diligent to find new stuff… it’s hard work to keep up. My theory is that most folks actively listen to music from age 13 to 22 and they carry those songs with them the rest of their life.
P: My parents were not music people at all but yet they have two boys that are both music fanatics. My brother is a bluegrass musician and aficionado and I do the rock thing. I remember my dad talking about some song and I don’t remember what it was exactly and I wish I could and I’ve thought about it 1,000 times, I wish I could actually name the title for you, but there was some song at some point in my childhood where my dad said “Oh my god, I love this song,” or “what a beautiful song” or something like that and I could see it in his eyes and maybe he put his hand to his heart. And I thought, that’s the one thing that hit him that way and if it made you feel that way, why wouldn’t you seek it out more. Why wouldn’t you want that feeling to happen all the time? I know what you’re saying about the age group or demographic of people that listen to music and then they pass it up. I guess this is a general thing about art – art is enriching, it improves your life so much that I don’t understand why more people don’t have it in their lives. I’m not particularly a sports guy, but I love to play baseball, I’m looking forward to going to my boy’s practice here in an hour, but it wasn’t a big deal to me. One of those things I feel about the world and maybe why I’ve always felt a little bit out of step, or a little bit of a misfit, is just something as common as when you flip on the TV at 10:00 or 11:00, depending on your time zone, it’s news, weather and sports, and I thought, since I was a kid, why is it news, weather and sports – why isn’t news, weather and the arts? Because as great as sports is, and it’s obviously a good thing for exercise and all that. To me, art is so much more important and I think if there’s three essential things that one would need to know and experience on a daily basis, it would be to keep up with the news, to know what the weather’s going to be, and to have some artistic experience on a daily basis. To me, I just don’t understand it and I guess that’s just the way it is. For some people bug collecting is a thrill, skiing is a thrill… to each his own. I’m not knocking any of it, whatever makes you feel good, whatever you find challenging and interesting is great.
TK: Was it a hard decision for The Replacements to sign with Sire? For you personally?
P: Heavens no! It wasn’t a hard decision for anybody. Everybody wanted what was best for the band – Twin Tone, me, the band, everybody. In fact, I was surprised it took so long for a major label to come along. And I think that’s the difference now between working with New West and working with Twin Tone back in the day, because at Twin Tone we were absolutely content with the fact that we were a farm team for the majors. And at New West I think we can actually do a better job than the majors in many, many cases. When we sign artists at New West, my ideal situation is to find great artists and make records with them for the rest of their careers, if we could.
TK: It seems like New West is almost following the old Warner Brothers model.
P: Well, to some extent, but we don’t sign a lot of new baby bands or developing artists. We’re generally working with people who have some traction, and in some cases, they’re veterans.
TK: Are there new artists coming soon on New West that you can tell us about?
P: Sure, Benji Hughes, from Charlotte, North Carolina. I guess the nutshell synopsis would be… he falls somewhere between a Leonard Cohen and a Jonathan Richman.
TK: When does that record come out?
P: We’re putting out a 6-song EP first, then a 2-CD set on July 22nd. He’s basically made a double album – it’s 25 songs.
TK: Jack Logan!?
P: Yeah right… I’ve done this before. But anyway, it was his desire to make it a 2 CD set and we think it’s a good idea, too. He’s going to be doing dates opening for Rilo Kiley starting June 2nd.
TK: They’ll be in Philly June 5th – Rilo Kiley is one of my favorite bands.
P: I love them too. I’m not such a big fan of the newest record, but I love their first three.
TK: You managed a very successful, independent record store – what do you see now as the future for brick and mortar record stores – can stores like Oar Folkjokeopus still exist, or has their time passed? Is it Pitchfork or Amazon… how do people get that experience which seems to be dying out with downloads, big box stores and on-line shopping?
P: I think there’s a lot of ways to do it. In the first place, yeah, I think there’s still a place for a great record store, and hopefully Main Street Music [in Philadelphia] is one of those ones that will live on, hopefully Treehouse Records (which is what Oar Folkjokeopus became), and here in LA, of course, we’ve got Amoeba, which is just an unbelievably great record store. There’s an Amoeba in San Francisco, there’s Sonic Boom in Seattle, and I think if you’re very careful and you do it right, you can still have a record store, but you’d have to sort of diversify. You have to offer more than just albums and what-not for sale. You’d have to figure out a way to, as we say at New West, there’s got to be a way to harness this in a good way. I don’t think that suddenly that people with the expertise that we have are not of value anymore. I think we have to figure out how to present ourselves and our music. When I was a kid, I always loved the idea, back when radio was not programmed, the nation was not programmed by some guy sitting in New York City or Atlanta. I had this picture in my mind of the guy in the tiny office with teetering stacks of records going floor to ceiling, going through and picking the things that he thought was best every week and putting them on the radio. I think there is still some kind of pulse going on in 2008. It’s impossible when people say there’s nothing out now that knocks me out like it did when I was 20, I think that’s nonsense. Another great thing I remember somebody said – Andy Schwartz who worked at our record store – to me, or maybe it was in a story he wrote, since rock and roll began (whenever you think it began – whether it was 1950 with Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters or it’s 1954 with Elvis Presley), there’s been a steady pulse, and sometimes it’s on the radio, and sometimes it’s in front of your face and sometimes it’s not. Sometimes you have to look for it harder than others. In general, I think there is a forum, or a clubhouse that is a place where people come to talk about music. Whether it’s on the internet, or whether it’s a physical building, or whatever – Pitchfork is certainly a great place, MOJO is a great place, Main Street Music is a great place where people exchange ideas, and argue about music, and tell like-minded people about their favorite new thing.
TK: Do you see any standard bearers of The Replacements’ legacy today?
P: For one thing, there might be some bands that I just don’t know about and I’ve got my favorites that aren’t necessarily bands that are actively touring and doing shows like The Replacements did. My favorite record right now is an Australian duo Angus and Julia Stone. I’m just obsessed with this record called A Book Like This, and it’s very melodic, intelligent folk rock. I’m not so concerned with who’s coming to the clubs and who are the road dogs of the day that are out there selling their wares. Certainly The Hold Steady are a great example and I may not feel as passionately about them as some, or as you do, but I think Craig Finn is a great guy, I know him somewhat personally, and I think they’re doing a great thing. There’s a band from Orange County called the coco b’s that I think are absolutely brilliant that have a little bit of The Replacements and a little bit of The Velvets/Lou/Big Star kind of thing.
TK: Is that a band you would consider for New West?
P: Absolutely. Although through the history of time, there’s a whole lot of people who make great records, but maybe don't have the live thing down. Now I have to mind the store a little better and so, you have to not only be able to make great records but be able to do it live on a consistent basis. I don’t mean consistent, like you gotta put on your suit and tie every night; I mean you gotta be out there working it on a regular basis. The Coco B’s are not touring yet so they’re not really a band we could look at. If you’re not going to work full time at being a band then it’s very difficult for New West to work with you. There’s a band called Lifters out of Fort Worth, and they’ve got a six song EP out that’s great from top to bottom. There’s a lot of groups that I think have great potential, but as far as ones that are really out on the road – there’s probably a bunch that I’m just forgetting.
TK : One of my latest faves are The Felice Brothers – have you heard them?
P: Sure I have. I like their recordings but I’m not blown away. But everybody tells me I gotta see them live. I tried to see them in Austin at SXSW and I actually went to a place where they were supposed to play one of the nights and they weren’t there and I don’t know why. I actually got the time and the date from somebody at Bug Music (their publisher) and the band wasn’t there and there was nobody there who could tell me why the band wasn’t there. Related to that, and something I wanted to mention, are there actual brothers in that band?
P: Well, one of their sisters is married to AA Bondy, whose American Hearts is one of my absolute favorites of 2007. Or my favorite band on the planet right now is Eisley, which was my # 1 record of last year. I would say, to demonstrate how much I like that record, I don’t know if you know this about me, but I’m a McCartney guy, he’s my favorite thing and really kinda the reason I do what I do to some extent. The McCartney album, which I though was a great album, a great McCartney album, Memory Almost Full, was # 2 and Eisley was # 1. I’m doing two road trips in the next month where I’m going to Milwaukee, Minneapolis and Des Moines to see them and then San Francisco, LA and San Diego and Pomona. I think the two girls who sing for that band are among the greatest singers I have ever heard. At a glance, it may seem like kid stuff, but I’m telling you there is so much substance there, and since ’05 there is no artist I’ve listened to more than Eisley. I just absolutely think they’re astonishing. The hook for me, the first thing that got me was a song off their first album called “My Lovely” and I went “God, this has some element of Mary Hopkin in it somewhere.” She’s never been a huge favorite of mine but she made these really cool records for Apple, her husband was Tony Visconti. They were these kind of folk records with these beautiful, ornate string arrangements. That was the first thing that I heard in the root of Eisley that sounded like an old fashioned, U.K. kind of folk music and now that I’ve listened to them so much I almost have a hard time going back and remembering why I thought that. And, while it’s not overt in the way they behave, they come from a Christian background, and I think that there’s a lot of church-y elements in what they do, in their enunciation and maybe in the tunes. They grew up singing in churches and maybe that’s what it is that connects to this Mary Hopkin thing. I can not even put into words how much that band means to me, and it really is the singing. When I first got into them, it was a few months after the first album had come out and they’d already done the cycle where they’d come through LA and played their dates and then I saw they were coming back through California opening for Hot Hot Heat and I drove up to Ventura (about an hour north of here) to see them in this theater and I specifically thought “they can’t possibly sing this good on stage, so I’m going up to bust them!” Plus, when you look at the first record there’s like five producers, so I’m thinking this is a studio concoction and they could never pull this off. Then they came on stage and sang and I got weak in the knees about twenty times during the 45 minutes they were on stage. It is quite extraordinary. They have two records, plus some other EPs and in fact, there’s an EP called Like The Actors that came out after this new album and the title song might be the best song I heard in 2007. They’re so young, when they got signed to Reprise, the youngest of the two singers was 13, and the other one was 18. Now they’re 18 and 23. The whole band are great players, they’re very natural, gifted players at the root of it and the singers just have the voices that are to die for. The thing that is so exciting about them is that they’re still very young and so the songwriting, to me, if they hang with it, will do nothing but develop. The writing from the first album to the second album improved greatly and I think if they continue to do it that five, six albums down the line they’re just gonna be frightening.
Part 2 of this interview (Peter talks about the Replacements's heyday) will be up this weekend.