Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Q+A with Don Giovanni Records (hosting two showcases at Mercury Lounge this weekend)

This weekend, Don Giovanni Records is hosting two showcases at Mercury Lounge, which Jenn and I both fully recommend checking out. The label's showcase in February totally ruled, and somehow managed to fill Bowery Ballroom with the energy of a New Brunswick basement.

Being a fan/advocate of the New Brunswick, NJ label kind of makes me feel like I am living out the legacy of Our Band Could Be Your Life. The DIY label has released two of my favorite records in the past two years: Screaming Females’ Power Move and Shellshag’s Rumours in Disguise.

MP3: Shellshag – 1984 (from Rumours in Disguise)
MP3: Screaming Females – Adult Army (from Power Move)

Co-founders Joe Steinhardt and Zach Gajewski, both 25, started the label six years ago. They still don’t take any money out of the label. Joe is a grad student at Syracuse and Zach works for a publishing company. Don Giovanni is essentially run out of their apartments. “Living off of the label just straight up isn’t our goal,” said Joe. “We both have different career aspirations entirely.”

Instead, when the label makes any money, it stays with the label. “The reason we were able to do so much for Screaming Females is because we made so much money on the Ergs’ last album. Then the money from Screaming Females is letting us do more with Shellshag.” This has been the label’s general structure since its inception during college: they put out their own hardcore band’s 7-inch, used the money from that 7-inch to put out their friends’ band’s 7-inch, used that money for the next 7-inch, etc.

“I feel like in that light, we’re different because whereas another small label that’s unconcerned with money might also be unconcerned with how much they’re selling, I am very concerned with how much we’re going to sell. I want our records to all be huge, so that we can do bigger things in the future,” Joe said.

There are tons of “DIY labels” and “DIY bands” making great music today, but the Don Giovanni family’s history and energy stands unmatched -- a long-lasting, self-aware enthusiasm for reaching as many listeners as possible while staying true to their community and maintaining their characteristically frugal work ethic.

“Sometimes I wonder if anyone has ever heard of our bands who I don’t know,” Joe told me last week. (Power Move sold 5,000 copies last year and the label sold out a showcase at Bowery Ballroom in February.)

Joe and Zach started Don Giovanni Records when they were teenage undergrads at Boston University. As a BU student myself, I was really intrigued (and to be honest, kind of shocked) when I first learned that the label started here. Check out a full Q+A with Joe after the jump for more on the history and goals of the label, being best friends with all of the bands of the label, convincing bands who hate labels to sign with DG, and how their label fits into the bigger picture of what’s going on in New Jersey right now.

Download an 11-track label sampler here.

LP: How did Don Giovanni start?

JS: Around 2004 at BU, we started a crappy hardcore band and wanted to put out our own records. We needed a name to put on it and came up with a bunch of bad ideas, including Don Giovanni Records. I was an active member of the New Brunswick DIY punk scene in high school and part of middle school, and there were all these awesome bands that didn’t even have records out. Some of my favorite bands didn’t have records out, so I always thought it’d be cool to do something about that.

We put out the Talk Hard 7”, which was our band, a couple of those friends of mine were like, “I have this band Kamikaze and we just recorded a record and there’s no one to put it out. Do you wanna put it out on your label?” and I was like “Well I don’t really have a label but of course I’ll help you with your record.” So we took the money we made from the Talk Hard 7” and put out the next 7”, took the money from that 7” and put out another 7” and just kept going like that for a while.

LP: How did you and Zach meet at BU?

JS: The first time I met Zach I thought he was the biggest loser ever. And I think he thought the same thing about me. We didn’t like each other at all, but there was this band The Beatnik Termites, that very few people had ever heard of, and Zach and I both loved them. When I found out he liked the Beatnik Termites, and he found out I liked the Beatnik Termites, it was such a big deal, so we were like “lets hang out every day” and we pretty much did.

The Beatnik Termites are the reason we’re friends to this day. We started a pop punk band at some point to try to sound like the Beatnik Termites.

LP: You said once that the goal of the label has to do with taking your friends’ music and getting it the respect it deserves. Can you elaborate on that?

JS: The goal is to level the playing field between the bands that I feel are the best bands in the world, and the bands that are the most popular bands in the world. When we first started the label, our goal was just to put out a 7” that would be in a store, as opposed to a 7” that you could only get from us in the mail.

Now, our goal is a little bigger. I still exist in this world where I feel like everyone who likes our bands is someone that I know, which is a nice feeling, but at the same time sometimes I wonder if anyone has ever heard of our bands who I don’t know. I want to see someone who I don’t know wearing a Screaming Females shirt, as stupid as that sounds, or to hear someone I don’t know saying Shellshag is the best band of all time. Not because I told them that or because they’re my friend and I put them on a mixtape. It’s starting to happen.

LP: I’m pretty sure that I know tons of people who don’t know you, who like Screaming Females and Shellshag.

JS: That’s the irony of it I guess. I still assume it’s not out there.

One of the best things that ever happened to me was recently a stranger emailed me asking for guitar tabs to a Shellshag song. I was laughing, I was so happy. So of course I forwarded it to Shellshag, who thought it was a joke. Little stupid things like that are just so crazy to me.

Another side goal is to see our bands be able to be successful for being themselves, and not have to be like, “I deliver pizzas and I’m also in Screaming Females” or “I’m a plumber and electrician and I also play in Shellshag.” I want to see everyone on our label and all of my friends doing what they want to do, and not working some job that sucks so that they can in their free time be in this awesome band. I want to help my friends get their stuff together so they can do what they want to do instead of just struggle.

Also, to put New Brunswick, NJ on the map has been a goal of mine since middle school, or early high school. Like how No Idea put Gainesville on the map, or Sub Pop put Seattle on the map. I want people to think of New Brunswick of this great place where great music is coming from, either because of what we’re doing or otherwise, aside from what we’re doing.

LP: How do you think Don Giovanni is different from other young, independent D.I.Y. labels? There’s something different about it-- that sense that it’s a very tight knit group of friends with a strong connection to their fan base?

JS: I think the most important thing about our label is we really aren’t concerned with money at all, or with being a business or turning profits. We want to produce something, but not money. There are a lot of small labels out there that don’t try to make a lot of money, but they have small fan bases and they don’t press a lot of copies of their records. And that’s awesome too, that’s how we started. But now we’re at a different point where we’re doing bigger business-type stuff, like advertising and publicity and getting on big tours. We could easily try to live off the label, but that’s straight up not our goal. Zach and I both have different career aspirations entirely.

LP: What are your other careers again?

JS: I’m at Syracuse now in a Master’s degree program. Next year I’ll be in a PhD program at Cornell for risk communication. I study risk. Zach works for a small publishing house.

When our label makes a lot of money on something, really that just means that we can do more for the next release. The reason we were able to do so much for Screaming Females is because we made so much money on the Ergs last album. Then the money from Screaming Females is letting us do more with Shellshag. I feel like in that light, we’re different because whereas another small label that’s unconcerned with money might also be unconcerned with how much they’re selling, I am very concerned with how much we’re going to sell. I want our records to all be huge, so that we can do bigger things in the future.

LP: It seems like it makes all of the artists even more connected and important to each other, because the success of one band helps determine the amount of support the label can put into another artist.

JS: Yeah, definitely. Everyone involved has always known each other.

It’s hard to explain what we’re getting at sometimes. I feel like we are kind of painting a picture with our records. I look at them all and it kind of tells a story, a larger picture rather than a bunch of individual releases. It makes sense that we're doing Screaming Females and Shellshag right now, and it makes sense that we did The Ergs and For Science and Hunchback and The Measure at the time we did, and it makes sense that we did Talk Hard and Snake Bite and Kamikaze when we did. It’s like if you step back and look at it—though were not really expecting anyone to do that—but if you do, you might see something cool.

LP: I can totally see that idea of stepping back and seeing a painting of a label. Would you say you’re usually friends with a band or a fan of them before you release their record?

JS: The two, for Zach and I, are almost inseparable. At least for me, due to my obsessive nature sometimes, if there’s a band that I’m a fan of, I want to know so much about them, that I become their friend. If you’re a fan of a punk band that always plays to 20 people and you go to all of their shows and buy all of their records you inevitably become their friends anyway.

We’ve been really good friends and really big fans of all of the bands we’ve put out. It’s not really clear which comes first. There are bands we’ve been friends with forever like The Measure. Then there’s bands like Shellshag-- I’d never heard of them, and when I finally did hear them, I fell in love with their music. Before we were friends we’d see each other at shows, now we’re really good friends, we hang out, I call Jen all the time with nonsense.

LP: I’ve interviewed Shellshag and Screaming Females, and both bands have told me that they were originally opposed to releasing records with labels. Jarret from Screaming Females told me that you told him you would kill yourself if you couldn’t release the Screaming Females record. And Jen from Shellshag was like, “Have you ever hung out with Joe Steinhardt? Hang out with him long enough and he’ll convince you of anything.” How do you convince these bands that are so opposed to labels to release records with you?

JS: That’s really funny. The thing with Jarrett was definitely true. I told him that in DC. It’s really different with every band. Like I’ve been saying, our label is not like a normal label. For some labels it might be a good year because they made a million dollars, for us it’s a good year because Screaming Females are living off of their band. That’s what our profits are. It’s that Screaming Females are now the kind of band who can sell 5,000 records and they weren’t before. And when you hang out with Zach and I, you get a sense that this is true, because that’s genuinely true. It’s not like one day just out of the blue came to a Screaming Females show and approached Jarrett and was like, “hey, I do this, and this is my label.” We’d known each other for a long time, because I’d be seeing them at all of their shows and he’d been seeing me at all of their shows and he knew about the label. And—with what I was saying before about that picture—I was kind of like, “hey look how well you fit into this, you need to be here and much as we need you here.”

I think with Shellshag, it was convincing them of what they didn’t know they needed. There are things they don’t even realize they want. Like, they can be successful by tweaking this one thing, not re-inventing or changing themselves, not changing their tour routing, or how how their recording, just getting them some distribution and helping them play with some new bands. Saying, ‘I know you can do this yourself, or you can have someone help you’ who genuinely does not want anything money-wise but really just does this because I genuinely enjoy it. They see that clearly there’s no real incentive for me to help them other than I want to. I think there’s comfort in the fact that this is all just a group of friends. We would only be interested in a band that would already be interested in us because of what I was saying about every band having to be a perfect fit and fit into the picture.

If we were living off of our label, we wouldn’t have the luxury of only putting out 2 records a year because they were the only two perfect fits this year. It’s definitely a luxury we have, that we have different jobs or career paths aside from the label. And I think that’s why bands trust us, because its real. It’s not like I’m convincing a band to trust us. It’s that they actually trust us. Because we’re trustworthy.

LP: How do you think Don Giovanni fits into the larger picture of what’s going on in New Jersey? Jenn’s really into Underwater Peoples and Titus Andronicus and … Ridgewood. What’s that town called? Glen Rock? Underwater Peoples is DC-based but a lot of their bands are from New Jersey. Do these communities in NJ ever cross paths? Are they pretty separate?

JS: That’s a good question and I always think about this myself. NJ is a small state, but there are some things that are only an hour away from New Brunswick that might as well be in California. There’s so much going on in every little region. Those bands just aren’t in our scene. I think it’s always exciting when anything is happening in New Jersey or anything’s getting people excited about New Jersey. But bands like Titus, and … Beach House?

LP: You mean Real Estate?

JS: Oh Real Estate might be who I’m thinking of. Well as you can tell, I just don’t know those bands. There’s never been like a Screaming Females and Titus Andronicus show, or like a Real Estate and The Measure show. There’s definitely no reason why, other than it just hasn’t happened yet, because we don’t know those kids. There’s a lot going on in New Jersey and New Brunswick that we’re not a part of at all. We can only do so much. There’s nothing to really read into it.

The Don Giovanni Records showcase that Jenn and I saw at Bowery Ballroom in February was one of the most fun shows I’ve ever seen at a real venue. Somehow, these bands all managed to replicate the energy of New Brunswick basement in one of the city’s larger venues. The shows this weekend are likely to be even more awesome. More info here!


Bonus said...

nice interview liz! cool stuff

SHUT UP! said...

SO GOOD! you rule liz!