(written for a fanzine I can’t recall the name of, 1992)
The Headquarters of Sympathy For The Record Industry–perhaps the world’s pre-eminent truly independent label–is in Long Beach, California in a smallish house crammed to the eaves with record boxes and artwork and tapes; but also with paintings and wacky looking statues and ghoulish dolls and odd photos and little figurines and beggar’s bowls carved from human skulls. Everything. The office, far in the back, is the most crammed room of all–spikey death bronze pagan ritualistic voodoo punk rock’n’roll souvenir shit from floor to ceiling so that it’s almost sacred in some tattooed way–lots of weird funny cartoon art on display or in piles–Sympathy records and discs and paraphernalia everywhere…oh, and a desk, a little clutter of papers, a calendar and Long Gone John, self-proclaimed Anti-Mogul.
“Where’s your files?” Dumb question. “What files? Here’s the receipts, here’s some mail. There’s a couple of boxes in the garage….”
1989: The third Lazy Cowgirl LP, Radio Cowgirl, is on the rocks, the money man having backed out. The band tells their plight to die-hard fan Long Gone John Mermis. “Why not?” he thinks. Suddenly Johnny’s in the record business. And the name? “I was driving into Hollywood one night thinking I had better come up with a name for this label of mine.” But Sympathy For The Record Industry? “It just popped into my head. My friends all said it was too long to fit on a record, and I thought hat was as good a reason as any to use it.” Luckily the Cowgirls were a hot item and the record sold well. Johnny decided he’d do a few more. There was a series a strong LPs (Jeff Dahl, Crowbar Salvation, and a couple of Australian ones) and then a single–Jeff Dahl backed by the Lazy Cowgirls on “Platypus Man”. That one disappeared real quick. Quick and easy and cheap. He’d try singles for a while.
John hands me a list of SFTRI releases. It stops at number 134. “There’s another thirty or so since then either done or in the works. If you spread that out over the three years I’ve been doing this it comes to about a single a week.” That he has been doing this. Not only has Sympathy been putting out a record a week for three years now, but Long Gone John is Sympathy. It’s totally a one man operation. He picks the acts and shells out the bucks for the recordings (90% of the time, anyway). He arranges for artwork and folds the sleeves and pays the pressing plant and puts the ads together and handles all the publicity–in fact he does everything but sell the goddamned things (Mordam does that). And just how does he do this? “People ask me that all the time, like it’s some kind of trade secret. You just do it. You don’t procrastinate. You get up at eight in the morning and just get it done.”
Skimming through the catalog, what is most striking aside from the sheer number is just who has been on a Sympathy record. Besides the Lazy Cowgirls and Jeff Dahl, there’s Claw Hammer (all three albums), Crawlspace, the Creamers, Pigmy Love Circus, Sacred Miracle Cave, Trash Can School, Foetus (AKA the Garage Monsters), Haunted Garage, Hole, Pooh Sticks, Panther Burns, Spacemen 3’s Sonic Boom, the Melvins, Steel Pole Bathtub, White Flag, the Cynics, Tesco Vee, the Honeymoon Killers, Prisonshake, Antiseen, the Dwarves, Muffs, Bad Religion and scads more–a tremendous chunk of today’s alternative underground maybe-they’ll-be-famous-someday rock’n’roll. So what criteria has he for selecting upcoming releases? How does he pick the hits?
“Basically I just do shit for myself. I wouldn’t be doing this If I couldn’t do what I want.” That would explain a lot of the more obscure releases–like the upcoming collection of goofy banjo tunes by the ‘50’s cartoon artist Basil Wolverton (“kind of like Big Daddy Roth before Big Daddy Roth…”) or any number of things in his catalog you’ve never heard of. It also goes a long way to explaining why he’s put out so many seven inchers. “Singles I just gotta do” he says, putting on the new Ron Asheton 45. But so many? “I may be the one to destroy it simply by doing so many, but…” What about LPs? “No more. There’s no return–too many problems with pressing and sound quality and they don’t sell.” Ramwhale, the latest Claw Hammer album, will be the last SFTRI release on vinyl as well as CD, and that only came about because band leader Jon Wahl was so adamant. “And all he’s got is a cassette player!” fumes Long Gone John. “Go figure.”
What of the opinion out there that Sympathy, to some the quintessential vinyl label, is somehow betraying the source of its success by switching to a new technology? “Look, I don’t know if you’ve got a problem with ‘em, but I love CDs. And they aren’t new anymore–they’re already ten years old.” So, with that settled and two discs under his belt, Claw Hammer and the Pooh Sticks, he’s got plans for another six, including the gargoyles, Trash Can School, Pink Slip Daddy, 27 Devils Joking, the Gibson Brothers (recorded at Sun Studios!) and a live Roky Erikson album. Later in the year, look for the magnum opus: a CD collection of his fave Sympathy tracks.
But why aren’t there any Sympathy cassettes? That dumb question look again. ”It’s a stupid format–a tape in a plastic box. At least a CD looks like a little record.”
Lately a number of Sympathy acts (if that’s the word when there’s no contracts–indeed the only connection being that they’ve had a record on Sympathy) have been getting picked up by majors. Hole is the obvious case in point, having gone straight from their “Retard Girl” 7” (and all those terrible club stories) to a major and fame. “I think Courtney is amazing,” John says, showing me her kissing Kurt on the cover of Sassy (John has a lifetime subscription). “I think the band will get everything they deserve.”
What about their alter egos, the Muffs, poised now to at least repeat Hole’s success? “The coolest band in L.A. Kim is a great poppy punk writer–they have got all the right elements and are totally unpretentious. Basically they are friends of mine who luckily for me are in an absolutely brilliant band.” And Claw Hammer? “Brilliant, versatile and like to show it off. I think Jon’s voice is a bit harsh for most people and you’ll either love it or leave the room, and I think that limits their popularity somewhat, though I don’t know if Jon cares or not. I do know that there is not much chance that I’ll be doing their next album.” Does that bother you? “I just feel pleased that I could put out the first things by people that go onto bigger things. Sympathy is too small to sell as many records as it takes to make it big–even in an indie way. But then, at my level, I can put out stupid stuff if I want.”
So who else on Sympathy does he pick to click? “Trash Can School could be huge. Not that the sound like the Velvet Underground, but they are as coolly obscure as the Velvets were in their own day and I think people will like that…when you think about it, they are just as interesting in their influences as Claw Hammer.” And John insists that everybody loves the Pooh Sticks, from sappy pop fans to crazed punk freaks.
Still, Long Gone John is not completely free of Big Label Business. “I get calls from major labels all the time wanting me to put out records. They offer to pay for the whole thing, and just expect me to grab at the money.” Apparently the Big Guys are after some instant underground credibility. “Of course, if I like it, I’ll do it. Check this out,” and he puts on a tape of an upcoming SFTRI single by, of all people, Ethyl Meatplow, just signed to Geffen. “I love this–when I first heard it, I listened to it over and over.” It’s a strange melodically industrial number, quite good. “Stuff like this helps shake the image that Sympathy is somehow a retro label,” he says while pointing out all the decidedly un-retro stuff in his catalog–Foetus, Slub, God Bullies. “Listen to this,” and he puts on a CD of Tammy Wynette with KLF. I can’t tell if I’m more taken aback by the legendary Long Gone John, Mr. Underground Rock’n’Roll, grooving to the dance beats of KLF; or by the fact that it is actually Tammy Wynette singing, not just being sampled. “I listen to this all the time–that driving ‘70’s disco, the heavy rap, the country western singing. I love it!”
We head out to the living room. The first Claw Hammer LP blares out of his daughter Taggy’s bedroom (“She was named after a Wild Man Fisher song.”) A line of those big-eyed Sally No Name begging dolls stretches across the mantel, each wearing a little dress bearing a letter that altogether spell out S-Y-M-P-A-T-H-Y. What does the future hold for John and his label? “I guess from now on I’d like to make a little something doing this,” he says. “It’s been night and day seven days a week for three years now and we are really only getting by. We aren’t rolling in cash like so many believe.” I study the miniature herd of bronze dinosaurs tucked away in a corner, trying not to look at those dolls. Any closing words? ”Just tell them that I’ll keep doing more of the same as long as I’m able,” and he digs through the boxes covering the floor and hands me a thick stack of his latest releases.