Published Nov 01, 2011Vancouver's Mint Records might not seem like the most likely candidate for the oral history treatment. While it's had its share of successes ― cub, Neko Case, the New Pornographers ― many of the bands on its roster remain relatively unknown or forgotten outside of the Pacific Northwest. But as Kaitlin Fontana reveals in her new book, Fresh at Twenty: The Oral History of Mint Records, the secret to Mint's success has been it's ability to fly under the radar while continuing to release great records year after year.
How did this book come about? Did you approach Mint or did they ask you to write it?
I did it myself. I've been a music writer for about ten years. I was writing for a Seattle weekly called Sound, which doesn't exist anymore. It's a shame because it was all about Northwest [music]. There's a huge relationship between the scenes. I ended up writing this state of the union on the Vancouver scene at the time, which was the beard rock thing with Stephen McBean / Black Mountain / Pink Mountaintops. This would have been 2009. As part of that I was doing some historical context so I started looking into Mint and talking to [Mint co-founder] Bill Baker. He was really funny ― self deprecating and dryly witty. I thought, "This guy's a good subject." He also casually said "The label's 20th anniversary is coming up, whatever." And I was like, "No, this is a big deal." Over the next few months I was thinking about it a lot, like "This should be a book." Finally I went back to [Bill and Mint co-founder Randy Iwata] and said "How would you feel if I wrote a book about you." And they said, "I don't know, do you think there's a good story?" cause that's kind of their style. And then I did.
So Bill and Randy were totally on board?
Yeah, more or less. They were in a tough position and I'm really grateful to them. I spoke to them for probably 15 hours about the last 2- years of their lives ― their entire professional lives. Their entire adult lives as well. That takes a lot to tell someone things about your life story. I think at time they thought, "Why did I agree to this?" and at other times I think they enjoyed the process.
They're the only two who pop up throughout the entire book.
Yeah, it's their story at its heart. It's easy to think "Oooh, Carl Newman or Neko Case or whatever." But it's harder to say that these two guys are the underdog heroes in this tale. We should be paying attention to them.
You start the book by going back to some of Vancouver's early punk scene with bands like D.O.A. and the Pointed Sticks and you especially single out Slow. What role did they play in creating that scene that allowed Mint to succeed?
I think it was an inspirational role, rather than a direct one. There's a bit of a gap in Vancouver's music history. There was stuff going on, but in that gap ― the '80s ― you would find Loverboy and hair bands and Bryan Adams. And that's what emerged in that era. But before that there was this very potent scene. When Bill and Randy were young men, Bill tried to be a punk and failed. It was too scary and he's kind of a nerd and loveable. And then Randy and his sister got into a lot of the alternative-punk stuff listening to CITR. But I would say [those bands] got them into the idea of why music's great and why they wanted it to be part of their lives. There wasn't a direct link except in the case of Slow, for which there is a very direct line to the beginnings of Mint. [Slow's rhythm section went on to form Tankhog, who were part of Mint's very first release, a split seven-inch with Windwalker.] I think it helped them find direction in those early days. They were trying to be a Sub Pop for Vancouver but weren't quite sure what they were. Through cub they kind of figured that out.
It's funny that you mention Bill finding the punk scene too scary. To me, cub is similar. Like, Bikini Kill are to political and screamy for some people, but they can do cub.
They're not as in your face. But a lot of the lyrical content is really dark and people kind of miss that sometimes. That's what's great about them. New Pornographers are the same way. There's all these lush pop harmonies happening and then you look at the lyrics and they're all about death and suicide and dismemberment and all those kind of things. I think that's a neat thread. And that's a Vancouver symptom too. It's all beautiful on the surface but any second something dark could come through. I think that's the thematic link between all these bands.
You mentioned that gap in the '80s in the Vancouver music scene. Was there a reason for that?
I don't know. I'm not a Vancouver music historian in the general sense. I know a lot about the punk era and a lot about this era. If I were to speculate I would say that because that was a time of a lot of prosperity in the music business tied to a very specific type of music, that it was very Toronto-centric, because it was very industry-centric. That dissipated and when the attention shifted to Seattle not to long after that...
By their own admission, Randy and Bill aren't exactly expert businessmen. Yet if you look at their partnership with Lookout! in the mid-90s, Lookout! seemed untouchable. But they're gone and Mint is still going. How did they manage to survive?
I think about that a lot. I think at times they've been buoyed up by the successes of certain acts ― Neko, the New Pornographers, cub, the Pack A.D. And also, they're always just kind of making it, there's that sensation. But they've been doing it so long. And Randy's a complete workaholic, 12 hours a day. If you stop by the office at 9 p.m., he'll probably be there. I just feel like it was sheer force of will on some level. They both had these blinders, like "What else would we do?" They're also both quite talented graphics guys and they do a lot of that on the side. At some level it comes down to determination. Beez from the Smugglers came on and reorganized their finances for them, so there are those practical concerns. Also, they have pretty good heads on their shoulders. They're very self-deprecating and never really believing that they're actually doing what they're doing. I think that may have actually saved them. What happened to Lookout!, Chris got used to living the Green Day lifestyle. He got caught up in that, which is really understandable. At that time it really did seem like it would never end. [They could] sort of never get to that point mentally, just because they never would even if it was happening. New Pornographers selling copies like crazy, they weren't equipped to deal with that. Nail, their U.S. distributor had contacted Scratch Records because they knew the connection between Carl and Keith [Cunningham] from Scratch. I think that they would never get to that point where they would assume they were doing well, like money and cars and women.
They're in denial.
Yeah, I've never really thought about it in those terms before but I think that's probably what it is at a certain level.
You basically tracked down every single band that's ever been on the label. As great as some of those groups are, why did you want to do that?
I feel like there's a cult of personality in indie rock that develops around the people that we feel are the most important. Personally, I didn't know a lot about a lot of those bands that ended up in the book because as a small town kid I listened to classic rock growing up. I didn't get into indie rock until I was in my early 20s. And one of the first bands was definitely New Pornographers. But if you're going to tell a story you have to treat every piece of the puzzle as a corner piece. It could be the lynch pin. I was interested in every story. At a certain level there was something that happened in every story that I found compelling, so I don't think it was the wrong decision to make. I think it's always worth looking at the whole picture anyway.
Did any of those bands surprise you with what they had to contribute to Mint's story?
There were multiple times it was surprising. Like the Riff Randells, the interesting dichotomy of these young girls and this older male singer fucking off in the middle of their tour, deciding he was done. Little stories like that. And group dynamics ― talking to Tankhog, we were all in a room together which was really fun. They were ripping on each other and laughing like it was yesterday. Near the end of the interview, they said "Well guys, I can't believe its been 15 years." They hadn't seen each other in 15 years, they hadn't been in the same room. All four of them live in Vancouver. They just hadn't done that for a very long time. I created their reunion by accident. That's always a nice thing to be a part of.
Were there any bands that through doing research for the book you became a fan of?
Well I have a much stronger appreciation for cub. That was partly through listening to the music more closely and through meeting Lisa and Robyn and Valeria, their very interesting and lively dynamic. On a certain level I think Lisa Marr and I are cut from the same cloth. There were ones all throughout. I got really into the Choir Practice. The Smugglers, a great garage band that I never really had any exposure to. There's so much variety in Mint that it's hard to get bored.
Neko Case declined to be part of the book and you included an email she sent to you. How early on did you know she wouldn't be involved?
Pretty late. She wanted to at first, or so I was led to believe. We were going to do a half hour phone interview, like whatever you can manage. At one point I offered to fly down to wherever she was. I wanted to talk to her. She's a big piece of the puzzle. She's at a level now where you have to go through her manager. Even talking through Bill and Randy, you have to talk to her manager. At various points it looked possible and not possible. Then it was an email interview. There were various fraught instances. I held on as long as I thought I possibly could to get her in there. Of course I want this marquee act in the book, but if she doesn't want to be in it, there's only so much I can push. It's not your average interview where it's like, "So, your new record..." It's, "I want to go back to your childhood..." because for her, that's what it is. She would know that I would know a lot about her life. She's pretty famous and she didn't want to open that book and I completely understand on a certain level. On another level I'm like, "Come on..." because I would have been very kind to her. I'm a fan and that's what I repeatedly said. And more importantly, Bill and Randy and Mint, I'd never want to hurt them or [her]. But she was not on it. My last effort was, you know, she's in the book. People are talking about her in the book anyway, this is her opportunity for her voice to be a part of that anyway. And her manager said, "Are you threatening us?" So I said, "You know what? I'm out of here." I was pretty disappointed. I totally respect her desire to be private, but she's a very interesting person.
Were there problems with any of the other bands?
There were a few. They're in there. Vancougar, the Awkward Stage, bands on the more recent side. Members of the Organ… just because the wounds are fresher. They felt strongly about one another or they felt strongly about Mint.
Have Bill and Randy read the book? Were they happy with it?
They were. Like I mentioned before, they were emotional, I feel like there were a few of those [moments]. But in the long run I think they're happy that it's happening. Randy's quite shy, he doesn't really talk to me directly. But Bill and I have a good relationship. He came to the launch party and we both commented that it felt like we were at our own funeral. It was all the people from his past and all the people from my high school.