James: Congratulations on the labels anniversary, when you put out your first record on Dromedary did you have any game plan or knowledge on how sustain the label beyond that initial release?
When we put out the first record on Dromedary - a horrible compilation of
New Jersey bands called "Nothing Smells Quite Like Elizabeth," I thought I had it mapped out pretty well. I was going to sell a bunch of CDs and cassettes, make a profit, and put out a Godspeed 7" with the money I made. Godspeed was an incredibly heavy
punk-sludge band from down the shore.
Best live band I've ever seen, even to this day. They were described as "Black Flag meets Black Sabbath."
Anyway, within about two months it became clear that I had no idea what the fuck I was doing, and that nobody was interested in our little compilation. I wound up giving away all the cassettes in the New Music Seminar promo bags, and about ten years ago I threw out most of the CDs. I think we sold eighty copies. We basically had to start all over from scratch.
For a long time I considered that record a dismal failure. It took 20 years for me to realize how many lifelong friends I made while working on it. Ralph Malanga, Mark Abney,
Steve Spatucci, Steve Bailey, Eric Greenberg, and a whole bunch more - all those friendships sprung out of that first record. So did our desire to use the label to support our charitable goals - the release party for that record raised $500 for a local food bank in Hudson County. Twenty years later, I think that record was a huge win because it defined everything we are in terms of friendships, community, and being a good citizen. Most of the music sucked, though.
Can you give me a background on the label and how it took route?
Al: After college, I wanted to work in the record business.
I applied to every record label that worked with a band I liked, went on a bunch of interviews, and got nowhere. Most of the labels told me that I didn't have enough experience.
So I figured I'd start my own record label, and get experience that way.
After two or three releases, I realized I had no desire to work in the record business.
I wanted to put out records MYSELF. So I started working hard at the day job to advance my career, and using some of the money I made to put out records by bands I liked.
I just wanted to document some of what was happening locally, in terms of independent pop music. In 1993 we put out a Melting Hopefuls single that SPIN called one of
the top 10 singles of 1993. There we were, on a list in SPIN with Beck and REM and Smashing Pumpkins. It was pretty kooky.
Eventually we branched out with the Mommyheads, who were based in San Francisco at the time - they were this funky little punk band that played jammy, quirky pop songs and toured all over the place, all the time. We sold a bunch of copies of "Flying Suit," the record we did with them in 1994, and it sort of raised our profile a little bit.
At the time, all the music-related stuff was managed by me, and Sandy handled the finances and mail-order stuff. My best friend, Rich Grasso, handled the artwork and was kind of like my sounding board. I didn't do much decision-making without much agonizing thought and alcohol consumption with Rich. As the label started to grow, the decisions got to be more serious, and the whole thing started becoming frustrating. Way too much 'business' and not enough 'music.' Right as I was starting to get super frustrated with the whole thing, Rich got really sick. He passed away in 2002. After he died, I lost a lot of interest in music, and basically stopped giving a shit about being a part of the scene.
I kept active by writing about folk music for Jersey Beat, but when Jim stopped printing it,
I stopped writing and went on a long hiatus. I simply did not care about music. I was kind of flailing about for a while.
It was only in 2009, when I fulfilled a promise I made to Rich by writing the story of Dromedary (in a blog format, which is still on my website) that I started to get the bug again. I pretty much made a new update every day for the whole year, telling all the funny stories about the label, how we started, how we ran it, interesting things that happened.
People were engaging with the blog and asking me why they were reading about these bands but couldn't buy the music anywhere.
At the end of 2009, I turned 40 and Sandy threw a big party for me at our house in the country. She got Footstone to reunite and play a show right there in our backyard.
First time they'd played together in ten years. People loved it. That's when I decided I had to figure out a way to put out records again. The last entry in the blog, at the end of 2009, was the one where I announced that I was going to revive the label.
I recall thinking "Drama Dairy, Dromedary" What does the name mean to you?
Al: It's a stupid story, actually. We agonized for weeks over a name, and had a whole shitload of different ideas. We had just about settled on one, when one day Sandy comes out of the shower and yells "DROMEDARY RECORDS." I had no idea what the hell she was talking about, but I figured that anyone who thought up stuff like that in the shower deserved respect. So we named it Dromedary Records. Plus we like animals. A dromedary is a type of camel.
How would you describe yourself twenty years ago?
The beer, the chicks, the music?
Al: 20 years ago I was the guy at Maxwell's with the ear to ear smile and attractive looking beverage in tow. I've always been married to Sandy, and I've always been just thrilled to be there, digging the music, hugging people, blown away by the fact that I get to do this. Dromedary is this tiny little insignificant thing, and yet it's so important to the people involved in it. Me more than anyone else, I realize, but it still has these little special moments. Twenty years of little special moments all added up starts to be a little significant.
James: "Micro Indie Label" GO…
Al: Big companies are concerned with commerce, on a big scale. They want to move units. It's like a factory, where artists are the product and they're fed into this giant meat grinder that spits out little boilerplate songs and videos that objectify women and encourage you to drink the soft drink and watch the movie and wear the sneakers. They just want brainless consumers with wide open wallets. And when the artist doesn't meet the financial projections, the product manager discontinues the product and R&D and Marketing launch a new one.
Micro indie businesses - not just record labels - care about what they make.
They want to make connections with people. They want to do something beautiful, even if only a few people hear or see it. They want to document something they feel is important. They want to help facilitate those little moments that lift people up. Sometimes it sucks, and sometimes it doesn't work, but it's almost always sincere.
Which one of those two things interests you? Go to D's Soul Full Cafe in Hoboken and have a muffin for breakfast, listen to the music, look at the art. Then go to Dunkin' Donuts and have a fuckin' cruller, listen to Taylor Swift on the Muzak. Which has more authenticity?
To me goes back to those little special moments I was talking about. We're seeing them every night this month in Hoboken with these nostalgic events leading up to the closing of Maxwell's. This week Speed the Plough played a set, and Glenn Mercer from the Feelies sat in with them. All these people who were part of building this scene back in the 80s were there. Seeing Glenn Mercer and Speed the Plough, this is not seeing Springsteen jumping onstage with Bon Jovi. They don't write about this shit in Time magazine. But to the people who were in the room last night, it was MAGIC. Chris Stamey, Freedy Johnston,
James Mastro, Glenn Morrow, The Cucumbers - all these people who helped define this scene 30 years ago, and most of them are still here. All those little moments give an artistic community its identity - whether it be a small town, a city, a state, a geographic region, whatever. Some of it radiates out, and turns into Gaslight Anthem or
Titus Andronicus. Most of it stays right here and turns into Wild Carnation or
Speed The Plough, and right now that's who's hugging everybody and telling them it's going to be all right. People came to see Ted Leo play because he's great, but when
Brenda Sauter sang a Velvet Underground song to close out the Feelies' set, they cried.
James: Looking back, was/is there a band or release that you feel defined the labels approach, sound or style?
Al: I tend to focus more on songwriting than on a particular sound. It's all noisy pop music, one way or another, whether it's Cinema Cinema or Guy Capecelatro III. All our bands are stylistically different from one another, but they all seem to fit together anyway, because a good song is a good song, as long as it's delivered with intensity and passion.
In terms of our approach as a label, I still just want to make beautiful stuff, help bands I like find fans to support them, and support whatever charitable organizations make sense for us. Same thing I did when I was twenty five, but, you know, fatter and with less hair.
Al: I have always thought that 1993 was sort of a watershed year for indie rock. It was an unbelievably creative time, and some of the most influential labels were putting out great records by some of the most influential bands. We had just started Dromedary and we were focusing every ounce of our energy on getting this little company off the ground.
We were so immersed in music, and all those records really influenced everything we did.
At the same time a friend of mine put out a compilation that I still think was the greatest compilation ever. It was a little double 10" record called "Why Do You Think They Call It Pop?" on a Boston label called Pop Narcotic Records. It had Versus, Small Factory, Helium, The Grifters, Polvo, Wingtip Sloat, Monsterland and a bunch of others. It was a great record, it looked great, it sounded great, and it had a huge impact on me.
Anyway, when we decided to celebrate the 20th birthday of the label, I thought it would be cool to ask a bunch of bands I like if they'd cover songs that were released in 1993, for a double-album comp that I patterned after the Pop Narcotic record. There were so many great records that year that it was pretty easy to get people excited about it. But it's also a little self-serving, in terms of the bands I asked and the songs I asked some of them to cover.
James: The addition of Cinema Cinema to this years Camelfest lineup was a big surprise, to say the very least. However, the signing of the band to Dromedary records this Spring was to say the very least, a shock to the system. Knowing that bands on your label and your overall taste in music don't exactly fall into the face melting style of what CC does. I'm curious as to how you came upon them and what led you to sign them.
Al: I guess I don't see it as being as shocking as you do. There's as much of a stylistic difference between
Guy Capecelatro III and Stuyvesant as there is between Stuyvesant and
Cinema Cinema. Ev and Paul are phenomenal musicians, and they are definitely doing something unique, but I liken them more to artists like
The Boredoms or Borbetomagus than I do to Black Flag or Bad Brains.
I know they've found a home in punk circles, but to me, punk has never been about a type of sound, it's always been an ethos. I find it ridiculous that there's a part of the punk world that embraces a band like Fugazi but not The Feelies.
I never questioned how
The Ramones and
The Talking Heads in 1977 could both have been considered "punk" even though they were stylistically different. So to me, it's not at all weird to have Cinema Cinema do a project on Dromedary.
Dromedary has never really been as much about a style of music as it was about strength of songwriting and musicianship, and presenting it in an interesting way. Obviously the stuff on the label tends to reflect my own musical taste, which tends to lean more toward the pop end of the spectrum than it does to the noise end, but if you put on an old Mommyheads record and then a Cinema Cinema record, the two bands may use different instruments and they employ melody differently, but they're both challenging you in amazing ways.
Plus, one of the first bands we worked with in 1993 was Godspeed, and they don't get much louder or more insane than Godspeed were.
James: I understand it's a one record thing, but considering how well received
'50 ft. Queenie' was. Is there a possibility for future collaborations?
Ev and Paul are both great guys, they make music that I find interesting, and they're very much DIY musicians.
What's important to me about the bands on Dromedary is that we approach each other as friends and don't engage in any egotistical bullshit. As long as there's mutual respect there, there's always the opportunity to work together. I've been putting out Ralph Malanga's records for twenty years - part of that is because I love his bands and his music, but most of that is because we're friends, we understand each other, and neither of us have any silly illusions about what we're doing here.
James: You originally threw out some numbers of sixteen/seventeen artists contributing covers. What can we expect?
The Jesus and Mary Chain, Smog, Seam, Vic Chesnutt, The Spinanes and
The Mommyheads. In a few weeks we'll reveal the actual songs that are covered, and then the bands that are covering them. We'll probably have an online listening party to debut the record at some point. This year's Camelfest will double as the release party.
Maxwell's has been so crucial in providing a great space, sound and collection of people to both the local music scene and to touring bands for decades. It's definitely been a home to our friends, their bands and especially to Dromedary.
I think we all knew in advance that it's closing was on the horizon. But it was that last month, July. that was particularly hard for a lot of people. I know for fact that it hit you pretty hard. Can you tell me what you went through emotionally. How you may have mourned or even celebrated that final month and what Maxwells has come to mean to you and to Dromedary Records?
Al: Brevity was never my strong suit, but I'll do my best here. The closing of Maxwell's was crushing to me. I realize there were a lot of people who practically lived there, who were tight with the staff, who'd been part of the culture for decades, and I realize I was not one of those people. So when I talk about the importance of the place, I don't want to speak out of school.
At the same time, I've been going there as a music fan since the early 90s, and Dromedary bands have been playing there for just as long. Some of the greatest shows I've ever seen happened in that back room, and I met people there who I now count among my closest friends. I've stumbled out of a lot of bars at 2AM with a smile on my face, but none more often than Maxwell's.
That last month, I felt almost desperate, like I had to go there every day. I live an hour and a half from Hoboken, so it's a real trek for me to get there, but I think I made it five or six times before it closed. I was able to bring two of my kids there to see shows. I was there for the Bar/None party, and for the Feelies show on July 5th. I saw Stuyvesant's last show there, of course. I also went there once or twice just for dinner.
For the final party, though, I stayed away. I was in Chicago on a business trip, but I don't think I'd have gone anyway. I've got an enormous amount of respect for the history of indie rock in New Jersey. That last night, I thought, was for the "regulars" and for the people who built the place. It was awesome for me to see photos of the people who created this enormous piece of our lives, celebrating and enjoying the place one more time. I read the stories and watched the videos - there was a lot of love there, and a lot of tears, and it was a lot better for me to know all those people got a chance to reunite and enjoy the club once more.
As for what Maxwell's has come to mean to Dromedary, there has been no better venue, and no group of people more supportive of what we've been doing for the past 20 years.
I love to put together shows - I do two or three a year - and Maxwell's has been the "go to" place for us for years. It's also been the place where I go to meet with bands to discuss working together, where I get together with journalists for interviews, or to just go hang out for a beer. It's going to be very strange to have to find a new place for all that stuff.
What's even more important is the way our bands are treated. The best thing about Maxwell's was that you could go see The Feelies there on a Friday night, then see one of our bands on Saturday night, and there was absolutely no difference in the way the staff would treat those two shows. Every band got professional treatment. I'm not aware of a music venue that more great bands called "home," and I have no idea what will fill the void that it leaves.
A couple of weeks ago I walked into Asbury Lanes with a few friends, sat down for a beer, and felt like that might be the kind of place where we could establish the kind of vibe we like at our shows. We'll be doing Camelfest there this year. It'll be weird to do a show at a venue other than Maxwell's, but the people at Asbury Lanes have been super, and they come very highly recommended. The venue has a great vibe, the people were nice, they serve local beer, it's a block from the ocean and you can bowl. So hopefully that can become our new home.
Jean Homme & the Broken Telomeres Sound Cloud
Dromedary Records Label