Yep Roc: Hawking Hallmarks
By Jordan Lawrence
Yep Roc’s 15-Year History of Marketing Music Veterans
Fairytales and Other Forms of Suicide, the provocative(ly titled) new album from Durham’s Old Ceremony, is a decidedly modern affair. Admittedly, that’s a strange thing to say about a record that relies so heavily on sounds that are easily cornered by overused, catch-all qualifiers such as “classic” or “traditional.” Opener “Star by Star” bends and contorts with seductively slapbacked guitar, the kind that’s been in heavy rotation since the 50s. “The Royal We” rambles along with a perfect country-pop shuffle, a supremely effective exercise that points to sources as disparate — in era and genre — as The Beatles and Old Crow Medicine Show. Along the way, there’s a Johnny Cash-style journeyman ode and a solid dose of lilting, late-Dylan balladry, none of which qualifies for that other tired tag line: “revolutionary.”
The album, the band’s fifth, is also their debut for Yep Roc Records, the Haw River-based imprint that this year celebrates a decade and a half in business. Given its reliance on canonical rock and pop techniques, the record seems prime fodder for a complaint routinely thrown at the internationally respected label. A large part of the company’s success has been built on artists that were icons long before they landed at Yep Roc: Mod revivalist Paul Weller, New Wave godfather Nick Lowe, punk luminary turned folk revisionist John Doe and jangle pop master Robyn Hitchcock are a few of many examples. The label signs up-and-comers too — Cheyenne Marie Mize, Liam Finn, Jukebox the Ghost, etc. — but its collection of aging underground stars draws the label more attention. And though none of these artists are resting on any laurels, their work — while relevant and popular — mainly focuses on expanding and perfecting past techniques. It would be easy, then, to paint Yep Roc as a home for conservative sounds and elder musicians, content to revisit old territory instead of paving new ground. Old Ceremony singer Django Haskins sees it differently.
“I don’t really see what we’re doing, or even what Yep Roc’s doing, as a preservationist thing,” Haskins says, taking a break from a New York press junket to talk about his new record and label. He sees Yep Roc’s roster as a collection of like-minded artists all striving for a timeless sort of songwriting, a sound that would resonate in any era.
“I certainly recognize that there’s not really a wave,” he explains. “Waves tend to be for more things that are happening and then are done. I think the whole idea is that this has always existed, and it’s a quieter art than some of the kind of genre-driven writing, where it’s like, ‘OK, we’re going to do this electro-pop thing,’ or ‘We’re going to do something that draws on Television and Talking Heads.’ Anyone who listens to music over a long period of time recognizes when these kind of new trends come out and burn out. I think of it more almost as a craftsman guild where you’re recognizing that there is a kind of a wisdom that builds on itself over time, but also, you have to make your own stamp on this tradition.”
Fairytales sounds modern largely because The Old Ceremony take that last directive to heart. “Star by Star” explodes with a distorted, panoramic riff during the bridge, approaching the arena-filling atmospherics of U2 and Radiohead. The title track, which wanders patiently down familiar country pathways during the verses, revs in its chorus, a snarling guitar clawing at the song’s stately veneer while bass and drums stomp with frantic abandon. And “The Royal We,” which feels so comfortably commonplace for most of its duration, indulges in an oddball psychobilly solo near the end, turning the song’s sound on its head and bolstering Haskins’ monarch-skewering metaphor with an appropriate air of musical incest. Like many artists in Yep Roc’s line-up, The Old Ceremony deal in tropes that long ago entered rock & roll’s common domain, but their creativity comes through in the way they recombine them, carving out room to experiment while still respecting the achievements of the legends that came before them. It’s an approach that mirrors the output of the band’s label.
“It’s a very crowded, small little platform for people to stand on in ‘cutting edge’,” says Yep Roc co-founder Tor Hansen, explaining why the label often opts for artists who drink from traditional wellsprings. “It’s cutting edge really for a very quick moment, and then it becomes sort of trendy. And then it becomes old and stale. To be messing around in that, there’s a few lucky people that are really good at it or just really lucky, that have a style or something that becomes very popular and therefore has good sales history or something like that. Some of it has great staying power too. I’m not trying to slam it. I’m just saying that if you want to break into that, either you’re at the very, very front of it, or you’re in a mix of a whole lot of stuff that I think is just hard to market.”
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Back in 1997, Glenn Dicker and Tor Hansen cared little about the style or prominence of the artists they were signing. When the two music industry veterans founded Yep Roc in Chapel Hill 15 years ago, they were simply looking to use their knowledge to promote releases by regional artists that they felt deserved attention. The two worked together at Massachusetts’ Rounder Records, a rock-focused independent label that has since merged with the Concord Music Group. Friends who had played together in a handful of different touring bands, they decided to start an imprint with an independent spirit and a roster that they really believed in. In the beginning there was little similarity between Yep Roc’s artists, apart from the fact that Dicker and Hansen were drawn to their music.
They released an EP from psychedelic funk-rock outfit Big Ass Truck. They handled the self-titled debut of the manic, rockabilly-blasting Tonebenders. They peddled records from the semi-legendary Mayflies USA, a Chapel Hill power-pop band that was an important player during the town’s 90s heyday. They pushed road-weary country-rock by way of Mercury Dime. In the early days, there was little sign of a central vision at the core of what Yep Roc was doing apart from a defiant drive to do whatever suited them best.
“The first records that we put out on the label were bands that were local bands that we really liked a lot, and they were all sorts of different things,” Dicker recalls. “It was all over the place, but the thing that they had in common was that they were all regional artists. And at that stage we felt that we wanted to do this thing ourselves and to have control over everything and really know the market. The market we knew at that time was a regional market.”
But the Yep Roc that exists today wouldn’t exist without a solid and reliable identity. Now based in the green, overgrown out-lands of Alamance County, Yep Roc resides in a hand-me-down warehouse, the kind of vacated textile-industry leftover that clutters rural areas throughout the South. The depot space houses Yep Roc’s sister company, Redeye Distribution. Ranking among the largest independent distributors in the U.S., Redeye claims such prominent clients as Warp, Barsuk, Thrill Jockey and Hydra Head Records.
The unassuming front offices are where the label does its business. They hardly feel like the home of a successful independent imprint. The white-walled entryway is filled with the constant clamor of the label’s ever-active copy machine, and the narrow hallways are bedecked in faux-wood paneling that looks to have clung there for decades. But the memorabilia on the walls told me a different story as an impressionable, 21-year-old intern wandering the office three years ago. There were magazine covers dominated by the wrestling-masked faces of Los Straitjackets, an elaborate box set released by Southern Culture on the Skids and a banner announcing the label’s 10th anniversary party, signifiers of sustained success that wouldn’t have been possible without a reliable stream of productive releases.
“We wanted to continue to raise the profile of the bands and the artists,” Hansen says, speaking via conference call alongside Dicker. Signing artists with a history of success boosted Yep Roc’s brand and allowed them to pass on that exposure to their developing artists, anchoring the label with proven winners and allowing them to take chances on other artists they thought would pan out.
“That was a driving goal. Being an underdog, small label, taking on an artist that already had a history, whether it was through Warner Brothers or whoever else, we would be presented with these opportunities, and we felt like if we focused on them, and we gave them more attention and positioned them through the same outlets but giving them a little more boost or attention, we would super-serve what they had experienced previously,” Tor continued.
Buying into the philosophy that their status as an independent label was an asset and not a setback when it came to chasing weightier clients — especially at a time when major labels were dumping prestige acts in a race to match the trendy pursuits of their indie level brethren — Hansen and Dicker decided to pick up the phone and call any and all artists looking for a new label that they were interested in signing. That ambition and a commitment to fulfilling their artists’ needs paid off as they managed to grab Los Straitjackets and Nick Lowe in the early years of the new millennium. Since then, the label has landed a steady influx of nationally (and internationally) recognized talent, names like John Doe, Reverend Horton Heat and Gang of Four.
“It’s almost like a bunch of old timers like us,” laughs Jay Ferguson of the Canadian power-pop outfit Sloan, who last year celebrated its 20th anniversary with the Yep Roc-released The Double Cross. He says that the label mostly stays out of his band’s way, serving as an outlet for whatever art Sloan ends up making. “It seems like that’s their specialty, bands that have a long career and are still making good records — and I think relevant records. The records that Paul Weller and Nick Lowe are making, they’re obviously not resting on their laurels. So I think that’s something specific that Yep Roc does well is keeping artists in the spotlight that do have a long career.”
But Dicker and Hansen have built more than just a home for older acts that have yet to outgrow their relevance. The acts they sign align with Haskins vision of Yep Roc as a society of craftsmen, complementing acts — some older — some green — all pursuing sounds that are in some way timeless. The pop-inflected bluegrass of Chatham County Line is a fitting counterpoint to the folk excursions of Doe and Tift Merritt. The psych-inflected power-pop of Liam Finn is a natural extension of the work created by acts like Sloan and Robyn Hitchcock. And The Sadies, who have collaborated with Doe as well as Andre Williams, seem content to play house band to any aging songwriter in the label’s growing camp. Apart from Williams, all of the above will perform at Yep Roc 15, an October celebration at Carrboro’s Cat’s Cradle that Dicker hopes will highlight connections among Yep Roc’s varied catalog.
“I think one of the things that we wanted to try to do that was hopefully interesting to the fans was create something that’s kind of a unique situation and maybe draws lines between the artists and maybe helps explain a little bit better what the label’s about,” he says. “The artists are doing potentially collaborative things together, and there’s sort of a family feel to it in some way. We wanted to have a unique experience for the fans, but we also wanted to demonstrate that there is sort of a connectedness. There’s some kind of glue. We hope that that’s part of what we’re presenting in these shows.”
Links abound between Yep Roc’s artists, but their most universal bond is the belief and commitment provided by Dicker, Hansen and their staff. Most music listeners don’t really care about the stamp on the back of the records they buy. They only care that the music sounds good. Yep Roc understands that. Dicker and Hansen sign acts they have faith in and then allow them to create as they see fit. For 15 years, that strategy has worked.
“One of the things that we were grappling with when we were looking at this 15th anniversary thing was just, ‘What can we say as our catch phrase about our label?’” Dicker laughs. They settled on “Artist Driven Since 1997.” “It probably took the longest time to come up with something that everybody agreed with. At the end of the day, trying to find the lowest common denominator about us, that makes sense. It’s really just that we’re into what we’re into, and we’re following our artists. They’re the ones leading the charge. We’ve never been like label first and then the artists sort of behind that. It’s always been artists first. That’s the foundation.”