An Oral History of Three Gut Records Lisa Moran, LABEL MANAGER
Published Aug 01, 2005When did you decide that this would be the time? I've known for a long time, and I've been in the process of letting the artists know and talking to everyone on the label about it. Going away [to road manage] on the Oneida tour [of Europe in June 2005] gave me the space from all of this to come home and sit down and write it out and publicly say it. I felt ready. Did the future of Royal City have any role in it? I wish there was one real reason, but it was a feeling. I felt that it was time. I don't know when exactly. Let's go back to the beginning then. 1999 I feel like we're in the Actors Studio! I feel like I'm Brian Linehan! Alright, hit me! (giggles uncontrollably) The funny thing is, you of all people could really pull shit out. Alright, let's go! December 13, 2000. You turned to Tyler Burke and said . (laughs incredibly loud) May 13, 2001, Kevin Fitzpatrick turned to you and said "How much longer do I have to keep cutting cardboard?!!" 1999 was when [Jim Guthrie's] Thousand Songs came out, and that was the first one, yes? The first with the logo, yes. And that was the impetus for everything? That's weird, I don't know. That album could have just come out with that logo on it. It was Aaron [Riches] calling Jim and saying, "Let's make this a label." Those two things together were it to me. Where was Aaron's record at that point? Aaron was recording his third solo record with Jimmy Version one or two? [An entire version of Royal City's At Rush Hour the Cars was lost due to a tape malfunction. The author played on version one. Version two became the finished product, and the beginning of Royal City.] Version one. At that time, it was, "What am I going to do with this, how is it going to come out?" He was brainstorming and working with those guys and getting to know them, and he thought we should make this a real label. When did it go from Aaron and Jim to Lisa and Tyler? Pretty quickly. Then it was like, okay, who's going to do what here? There were people sitting down and talking about it being an artist-run co-operative Was [Gentleman] Reg [Vermue] there too? Reg was there. They wanted to make music, they didn't want to run a label. So Tyler would do the artwork, and I had been working with Aaron as his manager, and he said, "Lisa can look after those kind of things, whatever they are." Pretty soon after that conversation, things started to happen. The reason why I'm doing this story and I wouldn't for others is that Three Gut's beginnings coincided with a lot of things happening in Toronto. I remember that being a very bleak time. What was your impression of Toronto in 1999? It's weird because I was pretty new to the city. I felt completely disconnected to it. There was obviously this upper tier where people had record deals and they played big shows and they were on the cover of [Toronto weekly] Now, but it seemed it had nothing to do with what we did musically. The intention seemed very different. It was very business, and that wasn't our motivation when things started. Honestly, we just wanted people to come to these shows and pay attention to these things that we liked so much. It seemed like we were running at it from a different angle. That upper echelon was always there, but I think of how focused the underground is now, and that wasn't there then. I know, it's weird, because was that there and I just didn't have access to it? Or was it that I didn't know that world of people who were doing it then? To me, it all started happening then, like [alternative weekly music series] Wavelength and all these other things. It was very splintered, and nobody seemed to know how to do anything. All the people in the underground seemed attached to the old traditional models. I think the goals were, "This is how you get to do music for a living. This is how people have done it." I don't think we were thinking that big about it. It was so long ago. I was so young! (laughs) When did you move to Toronto? 1998. Sonic Unyon was in Hamilton, but what other labels were in Toronto at the time? Teenage USA. (long pause) I can't think of anyone else. When did Royal City start touring the States? Pretty quickly we realised that a lot of the music we liked was happening in the States, and also it was cheaper and made a lot more sense to go there. If you went and played a show in the States there were music writers and zines and other bands there. We'd email other bands and tell them about our shows there. It seemed like we could find more information about music and independent scenes in the States. Not many other people in Toronto did that. It didn't feel like it. Now, everyone just does that. Then, we'd email people in Toronto and ask, "How does one do this?" And nobody knew. Unless it was someone on a record label and they had a touring budget. It just seemed like you had to have money to do it. But even the people on major labels weren't really doing it in Canada. They would tour the country back and forth but never play New York City. I know [Aaron Riches' previous punk band] Minnow would play Michigan and Chicago But they would also play in Germany. Aaron is a big thinker. He doesn't (affectionate sigh) He's pretty great! (laughs) He didn't think he was going to be huge by playing in New York, it was just "We like bands from there, let's play there." Tyler was a big part of this too. She'd say, "I'll book the tour" and she had no fear and didn't know the rules. We've said this a million times, but we saw Billy Bragg's manager speak and that was the exact thing he said: "You break all the rules in the beginning because you don't know what they are, and then the more you're in the business you can't break the rules because people say, 'You know better than that.'" We didn't have a clue about anything. It wasn't like we thought we were being big rule-breakers. It was just what we were going to try. I was remember the big parties at the beginning and how successful they were, and how Tyler has a knack for promotion in general, but specifically party promotion. Most people at the parties didn't know what Three Gut Records was, but then at some point in the evening there would be this unveiling of A spaceship with Three Gut Records paraphernalia that would come crashing down! At the time, this was pre-Constantines, so it was the very quiet Royal City, the very quirky Jim Guthrie, and the very folkie Gentleman Reg. It wasn't party music, and yet there were these huge bashes. Did those have any effect? I think they did. This phrase gets used way too much, but it was about pulling together a community. Those parties weren't put together by me and Tyler and the bands. She knew a million different interesting people, like Sandy Plotnikoff. All these people who were part of that scene who were creative, interesting artists and musicians. People who wanted to be involved. It pulled different circles of weird, cool people together. Then people thought, "Oh, that party we went to, those people work with that band Royal City. Maybe we'll check them out." I think that happened. Early Royal City gigs were interesting, watching the audiences' reaction, and watching Aaron's reaction to those audiences. He demanded that people listen, which people didn't seem to be used to doing, and that bled into the other acts. "This isn't just a band playing, this is something worth paying attention to." I don't think I necessarily understood at the time what Aaron was doing or how he was compelling people to pay attention, or what kind of statement he was making to people who were not paying attention. He was barking at the audience! How people reacted to that was fascinating. The first time he did it, even I was jarred by it, and thinking, what?! It was an interesting, compelling thing. Or there would be these screaming moments in these weird, quiet sets. (pause) I don't know. Aaron's fucking crazy, man! One of the keys to the success of the label was maintaining a small roster. When did you start getting pelted with people who wanted to be on the label? I remember it happening pretty early on. We always had an address on our website. The only thing I've noticed about all of that is that in the beginning it was such a crazy mishmash of things that were being sent. Some girl sent us her measurements - she obviously didn't understand anything about the label. The things we get now are closer to what the music on our label sounds like. What do you mean someone sent you her measurements? She sent a photo and her measurements - bust, waist, hip! We thought, why are you sending this to a label run by two women? We don't care what size your pants are! It was totally insane. That stuff was happening a lot. It was so disorienting. Even someone sending something great was disorienting, because we thought, "Why do these people think we can do something with this? We're just hanging out with our friends and helping them with shit. That's all this is. It's not a business. It's not a record label!" What stuff do you remember coming in that people heard later? It's weird, because I did pre-screening for NXNE and had liked some stuff. Cuff the Duke was one of those, and they ended up sending us a package and I saw them play at Wavelength. The one thing that blew me away more than anything in that process was Great Lake Swimmers. I remember thinking, what the hell is this? This is the most beautiful thing I've ever heard. But that has nothing to do with Three Gut. When did [the space near Queen Street] become the Three Gut house? Pretty early on, because there was a lot of space. Tyler's loft space too, for a while. But for the most part when it came to stuffing envelopes or putting on house shows, this is where there was space to do it and where people who lived here were open enough that they were cool with that. Aaron was there first, and then Tyler moved in so that made it super Three-Gutty. Then Jim moved in. Justin [Stayshyn], in his own way, made it Three Gutty, even though he wasn't on the label. He was in the Hidden Cameras and was so supportive, in his Justin way, of all the bands. Of berating anyone who didn't like them? Well yeah, he'd be the first person to heckle at a show, but if you said something critical he'd say, "Are you for real?" Except he would be much more witty than that. He would never actually say "Are you for real?" Then Steve [Lambke of the Constantines] moved in Then Steve then me. I've been here a really long time now. It was supposed to be for six months. Why the time limit? I had been laid off at my job, and it was a cheap place to live and run the label full-time. And I've been doing it ever since. Did you know the Constantines at all before? I didn't, but others did. Jimmy had recorded Captain Co-Pilot [Cambridge, ON band featuring future Constantines Dallas Wehrle and Steve Lambke, as well as Exclaim! writer Vish Khanna]. That was the first connection. Then Dallas got in touch about doing a house show with Royal City at [the Constantines' Guelph home ]. Then those guys told us that the band was so amazing. When did you sign them? They played their first Wavelength show on February 4, 2001. We had met them that afternoon, and within a week they told us they wanted to work with us. That was their second Toronto show. They had played JCC [Jewish Community Centre] before. Then they played another Wavelength that Stuart Berman wrote an article about. The album came out in June 2001. That record totally galvanized the label in a different way. Musically, they were certainly the loudest band on the label, but people also responded to it immediately, as opposed to gradually warming up to Royal City. It was weird because we felt like such underdogs with Royal City, and trying to get people to check out their shows. So much work went into that. With the Constantines, people were coming to us before we approached them. It was so weird, such a different situation. How long did it take to assemble the Constantines' albums? [The first run involved sliding cardboard, a waterproof match, and different short stories and poems that were randomly placed in each album.] Everyone talks about this initial gathering where they were put together, which really only resulted in the first 250 of them. We did a total of 2000. The rest of that first 1000, everyone was cutting cardboard at home. Kevin [Fitzpatrick, Lisa's boyfriend at the time] was cutting cardboard and assembling and doing so much and I don't think he ever got credit for it. We'd get a call from Outside saying, "We're out of CDs," and the Cons would be out of CDs for shows, and assembling the first 1000 was totally crazy. Anniversary parties? The first party was the 2nd anniversary, which was the crazy one at Tequila Lounge [which featured the debut of the Three Gut Family Band, a cover project involving most members of all the bands]. Then I said let's not do a 3rd for Three Gut, because that's too corny. The fourth one was at the Horseshoe. This year I thought we should do one because it's the last year. We've always picked a random date, there is no actual anniversary. And the label has been around since 1999, but apparently this is our fifth anniversary! Any particular highlights you want to mention? There were moments outside of here, like being in Austin or New York City and there all these people there who are excited about the band. The Alone at the Microphone release show was really magical. It snowed, and Sufjan [Stevens] came [from Brooklyn], the Hidden Cameras played, there were so many people, and we thought, "Wow, we worked so hard, and the band worked so hard and made this fabulous record." Before that, for every Royal City show we always thought "no one's coming." So when a room actually would fill up it would be, "I can't believe this, it's so exciting!" I know the policy was always that the two of you had to both absolutely love something before you signed them. It wasn't just about loving music, but it was this weird organic feeling about whether something was right or not. I can't remember if there was someone we wanted to sign that we didn't. I feel like I worked on all the records I wanted to. The label was also set apart by being management/label, as opposed to just a method of distribution. Can you think of other people who do that? Nettwerk. Arts and Crafts. I'm sure there's a million. In Canada at the time, Nettwerk was the only one. And people did say to us, "You can't do that. It's a conflict of interest. That's not right." Well, who else is going to do it for them? Especially in the beginning. And I started out being Aaron's manager, so of course that was what we were going to do. How did things change when Sub Pop and Rough Trade entered? The mechanics of our label and how things worked, that didn't change. Rough Trade happened before Sub Pop. It would be more about how it changed for the bands than how it changed for the label. Didn't that coincide with Tyler pulling out and it becoming more business than art project? People latched on to that, and I don't agree with it. I don't think it was about the label becoming this serious business-minded project. The way the label ran in the beginning was exactly how it runs now, other than there's one less person working on it. We still had independent distribution. Sarah Liss [of Now] wrote that in an article when Tyler left, but that totally wasn't the case, and Tyler later called her and told her that. Tyler really wanted to focus on her own art projects, and she felt she was spending all her time and energy working on art projects for other people. She wanted to do stuff for herself for a change, instead of being recognized as Royal City artwork or something. When was that exactly? She hadn't been involved with the label for at least a year by the time we officially announced it. It was in the summer of '03 we announced it, and she hadn't been around for a year before that. I think people really simplified the relationship by saying "Tyler does the art and Lisa does the business." When really, Tyler is one of the most business-savvy people I've ever met in my life, and I mean that as a total compliment. She thinks big and she understands how those people think and she was a big part of those decisions for the label. It's not that Tyler drew pretty pictures and Lisa did math. It's such a ridiculous notion. She's really smart when it comes to marketing. So how would you define your half of the equation? I'm really organised and practical. (stutters) I don't know! I can't define what it is I do. I just try and get work done and help out. When did everyone fall in love with Oneida? We fell in love with Oneida in 2001. It was love at first sight. And now we're just an old married couple. Did they have a one-off show with the Constantines or a whole tour? Tyler was trying to do what she did with Royal City and put them out in the States on this tour. In the process of digging around, she came across Oneida, who she kept reading about and then she heard their music and thought they were really cool. They threw these crazy loft parties in Brooklyn and it sounds like they do weird and cool stuff like we do here. So she got in touch with Kid Millions and said, "I'm booking a tour for this band, do you want to play?" He asked for the record and they liked it and thought, "OK, whatever, this girl from Canada is going to book a tour for us." They went out and did this strange venue tour and the two bands totally hit it off, and me and Tyler went to the New York show and stayed with Bobby and he gave us the 101 on record labels. Just the way he thinks and his perspective on all of it is so positive and amazing and inspiring. And just practical, so smart. We all became really good friends. So you put out their Secret Wars album in 2004? January 2004. Summer of 2003 I was on tour with Royal City in Europe, and Oneida had a London show and we were drinking and carrying on, and they said, "You should totally fucking put out our record!" Later that summer I was hanging out with Bobby at Coney Island and I thought, "Why not? This makes sense." We loved those guys, and people were kind of paying attention to the label and they seem curious about the records we put out, and I feel like maybe it would help them to be on Three Gut. Maybe some people would check out the record that wouldn't normally. I think to some extent that was true. It didn't turn into huge numbers at all, but it's hard with them because they're such a live band. I think a lot more people go to their shows here in Canada now. When Cuff the Duke signed, was there a sense that here is a younger band who will go out and tour their ass off, whereas Royal City wasn't really able to anymore? That wasn't my take on the situation at all. It wasn't "Let's work with a young band." It was "we like these people and we love the record, so let's work together." It wasn't a response to anything. We knew that when Royal City put out Little Heart's Ease that they weren't going to tour the record, and there was never any thought of not putting it out because it won't sell as well. That's why this can't exist as a business forever, because decisions are made on such a non-monetary level. We didn't put out Cuff the Duke because we thought it would sell a lot of records. The reasons why we put out records never changed. What does happen now, then? What happens with the back catalogue? Cuff the Duke, we're going to give them their record back because they're going to start their own label. The back catalogue as it stands right now, I'm going to maintain it and distribute it the same way, through Outside. What's in place right now isn't changing, we're just not putting out any new records in the foreseeable future. If the situation came up where someone got picked up somewhere else, they own their masters so we'd figure out how to do that fairly. It does seem odd to coincide the announcement with a new Constantines record. Does it? A bit. To say "this is the last thing we'll do," and then someone might think, well, does that mean they stop promoting the record after how long, six months maybe? But obviously the label isn't folding completely That's the weird thing people are talking about "closing the doors!" and "shutting down!" and "writing an obit." It's not dying or ceasing operation, we're just not putting out any new records. Who knows? I can't imagine I'll ever put out a record again, but this thing is in place and it exists and has distribution. I don't think it is that weird. I think it was weird to know this and everyone was talking about it, so we just said, hey, this is what we're doing. I feel really happy, and people send me emails with the word "condolences," and it's so unnecessary. This is really happy, great and exciting. It's been such a good run and I can't think of a better way to close it off. To close it off! Well, I don't know what the right word is! How would you compare Toronto now to six years ago? I was thinking about even bigger than that, how the whole thing has changed, working in music. The challenges have changed so much. People were so freaked out five years ago about people burning CDs. It's such a different landscape. Locally, it's different because there are a million awesome bands and people are playing live all the time and there are tons of good shows to see. There wasn't something amazing to go see every night five years ago, at least not personally for me. It's a natural ebb and flow. It seems really different than before. I feel like I was new to the city, and maybe someone else had some kind of scene that I missed out on. You would have heard about it by now. Yeah, I feel like I would have by now. Now you have all the Arts and Crafts and the Paper Bags of the world with major label deals, and on the flip side there are new no-rules labels like Blocks, who are more of a "recording club" than a label. It's cool to get emails from people who are starting labels and are so excited. People are sharing information with each other and that's the way it should be. Anything else for the record? I don't need condolences, although I do appreciate them. People have been really responsive and I've been shocked and humbled, but yeah, I don't need condolences. No one died. It's just a fucking record label.