Between deadlines and the high cost of vinyl, running a record label for ten years is up there with monkeys flying out of your butt on a list of things not likely to happen. Yet, for the last decade, Don Giovanni Records has defied naysayers, like Wayne Campbell, by consistently releasing records by some of the New York and New Jersey’s most diverse and talented bands and artists. Don Giovanni, led by two guys with a gluttonous desire for hard work, adapts to changing trends and the increasing popularity of its artists with ease and shrieks for more by expanding and conquering. We recently caught up with Joe, one of the label’s co-founders, about Don Giovanni’s evolution, current projects, and attempts to do it yourself in an industry that just doesn’t want you to.
C/F: This year’s Don Giovanni showcase is a mixed bill. Does this reflect the varied interests of the label? Are the band’s staggered in any particular way or do you want to mix them together?
Joe: The label has never been about capturing a sound as much as it has been about capturing a scene. Originally, that was only New Brunswick, NJ, but it has since expanded a bit to Brooklyn, since so many of the bands there play New Brunswick all the time and vice versa. If anything the bill reflects the varied stuff going on in the scene right now, which is awesome. We try to stagger the bands so as to get the most people to watch all of them.
C/F: Capturing a whole scene has its difficulties. Do you ever have a hard time finding an audience for it? For instance, the sound of a hardcore band like Secret Police might attract different fans than the folkier Laura Stevenson and the Cans. Does the label need to jump through different hoops or do handle all bands in the same manner?
Joe: Since none of our bands are that similar with how they sound and operate, they all get treated different in some regards, but in most ways we send their stuff out to the same places and offer their records to the same stores. Just different stores and places will pass on some releases and not others based on sound/touring/etc.
C/F: Your old band, For Science, is reuniting for the show. What caused the return? Does your own band receive a bias on the label? Basically, when is Don Giovanni going to become like a present day SST and just be a Steinhardt vanity label?
J: With For Science, we’ve all stayed friends since the breakup and talk all the time, and it just seemed like a good idea. We’ll see how it goes. It’s almost the opposite from a bias. I don’t really like doing my own stuff at this point, because I don’t want to feel biased. With my new band Modern Hut, I think I want to do it on another label that I’ve been talking to, but Zach, who I run the label with, thinks we should do it, so well see.
C/F: Do you need to separate yourself from the band when Don Giovani is working on it? Like, do you and Zach speak about the band from an outsider’s perspective?
J: Yeah, I think that is the only reasonable way to do it, even though it isn’t always easy.
J: There was a specific moment when the label became more of a real thing for us. Originally, our only goal with the label was to release records from local bands we felt like needed to be on vinyl that couldn’t find someone else to do it. We didn’t really try to actively recruit bands or build anything; just make records exist we believed were important that wouldn’t otherwise. The Ergs! were going to do the CD version of Jerseys Best Prancers with a bigger NJ label with better distribution, after we did the vinyl version of that and Dorkrockcorkcord. At first, that made sense to us, but then, while we were drunk on the bus down from Boston to NYC to see Bent Outta Shape and The Steinways, we had this revelation that maybe we could do the CD, but do it for real and do what this bigger label could do and more. That was the point where I feel like we really started doing the label. It hasn’t ever really felt like a job. The only times I really hate doing it are when I have to deal with industry people who don’t seem to even like music.
C/F: What did you do differently on Jersey’s Best Prancers? What moved you from local label to national label?
J: The main thing we did was get distribution. We also sent a bunch more copies out for review and made a point to get it into more stores than we had in the past.
C/F: As bands become more popular, and you have to seek out new avenues for them to perform, how do your personal politics toward running an independent label fit in? Does it become more difficult operating on a larger scale, especially when working with a venue the size of Bowery Ballroom?
J: There have been a few compromises along the way, but we usually try to do things very slowly and not rush into anything major. We do our shows at the Bowery ballroom and Music Hall of Williamsburg the same way I used to do shows in New Brunswick. I call up the place and get a date, I talk to the bands, make sure they get there on time and there is enough equipment, and at the end of the night, I get a bunch of money and distribute it evenly based on where the bands came from etc, and don’t take money for myself. We still don’t do contracts with any of our bands. I still do all the mail order and answer all the emails, and we pretty much do as much as we can ourselves as possible. In the times that we need to partner with distribution, booking agents, publicists, etc. we make sure to find someone that shares our values and is also independent.
C/F: As a record label, Don Giovanni has the ability to choose what the world hears, and essentially guide how the scene moves. The label’s history kind of reflects this. Under the “bands” section of the Don Giovanni website, there’s a move in action, a split between active and defunct bands. All of the ones on the defunct list reflect two genres: pop punk and hardcore. The active list is far more diverse, covering indie, power pop, folk, etc. Is this a reflection of your interests as a listener changing or the interests of a scene as whole? Do you find yourself moving with the current or do you hope to direct it?
J: Most of those indie/power pop band we are doing now are the same people that were in those defunct hardcore bands, or were in bands that played with those bands. I think New Brunswick and the surrounding scene has always been very diverse and it’s cool we are able to capture more and more of it as we expand. There are certain types of bands we would love to do and have wanted to do since the label first started really, but we haven’t really found the right band of that sound that fit with the label yet.
C/F: Do you have a particular aim to release a certain amount of records a year? Does the amount of music you listen to and enjoy make choosing bands for release difficult?
J: The amount of records we do has to do with the amount of records we can afford really, and we are always over stretching that. There are so many good bands, especially in New Brunswick right now that I would love to work with, and there have been bands in the past that we missed for no good reason. Sometimes it’s just an issue of bad timing or good timing for why we do what we do. A lot of the records we have been doing lately have been things where we told a band after hearing their demo we want to work with them, but we may not be able to afford to for a year or so, and that they should find another label for their first release and we want to do the second. Usually that works out. I am in touch with a lot of bands that I will try to help with shows/advice/sending their stuff to other labels/etc., because I really like them but we cannot afford to do their record.
C/F: Not that it really needs explaining, but how does a screening of Dirty Work fit into the label’s plans of February weekend domination?
J: Its something that’s always been on my mind, and this year just seemed like the time to try it out. I think we are going to loose a lot of money on it, but it is important, which is how most DG related projects end up being.
C/F: What’s next for the label? Upcoming releases? More events like the showcase?
J: The showcase is once a year, but I try to do a few shows a year in New Brunswick or at Maxwell’s when bands get in touch and I have time. It’s hard because I don’t live in the area right now, so often, I will just pass a band off to someone I can trust. Release-wise, we have a ridiculous amount of stuff coming out in 2012. The only stuff I can actually announce right now are the For Science LP, a new Noun 7”, a Noun LP, a new Screaming Females 7”, a new Screaming Females album, and a debut album and 7” from Hilly Eye. A lot of the bands that have already done stuff on our label will be doing new stuff this year, and one or two bands we have not announced yet will be too, hopefully.
Don Giovanni Showcase runs from February 9-11
Thursday, February 9th 2012
Forum Theatre, Metuchen, NJ
DIRTY WORK (35 mm print)
Doors at 7:30pm
Movie at 7:45pm
$10 / $8 in costume
Friday, February 10th 2012
Death By Audio, Brooklyn, NY
Nuclear Santa Claust
Doors at 8
Saturday, February 11th 2012
Music Hall of Williamsburg, Brooklyn, NY
Laura Stevenson and The Cans