In the Red Records: On Fire with Kid Congo, Strange Boys, Thee Oh Sees, Vivian Girls
Los Angeles indie In the Red Records has a remarkably consistent output: Slip on any of its discs and the results are inevitably flabbergasting. Just a few seconds of any of them — whether Silky, the landmark 1998 comeback album by R&B veteran Andre Williams, or last year’s superfreaky psych-garage Puerto Ricans Davila 666 — deliver an immediate brain-pulping, intestine-clenching impact. The label trades in the genuine underworld rock & roll threat, pure rebel trash, a musical form far removed from the timid, tepid realm of what rates as “rock music.” As the company’s founder-ringleader, Larry Hardy, explains, “I always shoot for that ‘Holy Fuck!’ response.”
Hardy is a pleasant, self-assured little dude. Serene on the surface, yet beneath, a restlessness subtly discloses some indefinable, elemental other. In short, he’s a nut. Specializing exclusively in anticommercial, aberrant oddballs, In the Red would seem a catastrophically ill-advised venture. Even stranger, with more than 50 bands, six European distributors and a fistful of concurrent new albums, Hardy is meeting the New Depression head-on, and it’s working out quite nicely. “Normally, I’d stagger the release dates,” he says, “but I’ve got five out now, two others on the way, and I plan a total of 14 for this year. There are just so many good new bands, and it looks like this will be the busiest year so far. It’s surprising, but I’m doing fine. All my biggest sellers have been recent, the Dirtbombs are the top seller, but we’ve done really well with the Black Lips, the Vivian Girls and Jay Reatard.”
Hardy runs the entire show out of a small garage behind his Eagle Rock home, with a trove of crates stuffed with vinyl and compact discs that barely leaves room enough for his small office, crowded with pagan idols and monsters, shelves of books and albums, a huge Charlie Feathers poster, framed photos of the Cramps, the Damned — or, as he says, “all the junk that inspires me.”
In the Red, with its fat, greasy catalog of fast-rising (and faster self-destructing) young bands, is a glorious anomaly, the fruit of a drastically misspent youth. “The first show I ever went to was Iggy Pop at the Santa Monica Civic,” he says, referring to the former Stooge’s 1977 concert. “I was 13, but had a lot of older friends. A couple of years later, I got a fake ID that made me 18 so I could get into clubs, and I saw the Cramps open for the Runaways. It was their first West Coast show and I couldn’t believe it — I mean, I thought I knew about rock & roll, but this was, like, terrifyingly great. After they moved out here and got Kid Congo, they’d play all the time and that music, especially with punk going into hardcore, was the one thing that mattered.”
In the years that followed, he took matters in hand. “I started in ’92, doing singles as a hobby, first one was by the Gories. I kept at it, they all sold modestly until I started doing Jon Spencer Blues Explosion 45s. They proved popular, things got rolling and we really started to become a label. The first album was by the Cheater Slicks, Whiskey. I hadn’t planned on doing anything but singles, and I wasn’t crazy about the idea because half of the album was one 29-minute-long song, and I really didn’t think that would go over so well, but they talked me into it — twisted my arm.”
More than 100 full-length albums later, In the Red is thriving, but there’s been an interesting, perhaps inevitable shift: “Everyone wants vinyl now,” Hardy says. “CDs are increasingly considered to be disposable objects; I mostly use them to send to radio and writers. Vinyl is at least 50 percent or more of sales — they want a record, nobody cares about CDs, you can download ’em for free anyway. The Internet leveled the playing field, and now you can gain as much prominence on iTunes as you could with a big label. It’s not like I’ve been adversely affected by downloads or anything. But it’s all about music — if this were a business, I wouldn’t be putting these out. I sign a lot of bands that I know aren’t gonna sell a lot — I mean, I did a Tav Falco album! At least it was a good one.”
Perhaps his biggest gamble was signing 1950s-era rhythm & blues provocateur Williams. “I did two albums with Andre, and that was all I had in me to do,” Hardy says. “He was a terror to put up with, we brought him out here and he was always getting thrown out of the motels, for smoking in his room, bringing prostitutes in. I went through hell with Andre, but I’m glad I did it. He started making money on the road finally, but it also brought back a lot of bad old habits.” Hardy pauses. “I learned a lot about what not to do — in business and in my personal life.”
The In the Red ethic is simple: Give artists a totally free hand, and the results can be stunning. This year has seen the release of the full-length debut by the Strange Boys (see sidebar), a new record by San Francisco’s Thee Oh Sees, and, perhaps the most potent example, In the Red’s new Kid Congo & the Pink Monkey Birds album, Dracula Boots.
Powers, a former guitarist for the Gun Club, the Cramps and Nick Cave’s Bad Seeds, makes it clear from the start that he is back exactly where we’ve all wanted him. The entire set is a marvel of dissociative aesthetics, from the first notes of opening number “LSDC,” a relentlessly stabbing psych-trash strut bonded together with the hot glue afforded by Congo’s extraordinary musical background. Vocals are cogently de-emphasized, lyrics brilliantly understated, and cynical humor (“Rare as the Yeti”) is as important as blood-chilling horror (“La Llarona”). A handful of instrumentals, from Bo Diddley’s “Funky Fly” to the band’s own “Black Santa,” are strikingly tight, well-lubricated grinds, each radiating a luxurious abandon. Verily, a thrilling hunk of wax.
“I’m extremely proud of it,” Hardy says. “I’d already done the Knoxville Girls, which was great and somewhat of a return to form for Congo, but he’s done so many different genres, often really weird things. When Kid asked me to do the album, I had to ask, ‘What’s it going to be like?’ He said, ‘Don’t worry — it’s gonna be a rock & roll boogaloo album.’ But even I was surprised at how hard and raw it was.”
In the Red’s sole flirtation with the mainstream was a Sparks album he put out a few years ago, but there was another attempt to romance a name attraction: “After we did the Andre albums, I thought about trying to record another great old blues guy, and actually had a meeting with Ike Turner,” Hardy recalls. “Good God, am I glad we didn’t do that. He came over to the office, and we played him a T-Model Ford Fat Possum album, to give him an idea of what we had in mind. He just started laughing, said, ‘Man, that sounds like what I used to do with Howlin’ Wolf — just one little microphone hanging from the ceiling!’ I gave him a copy of Andre’s record, he left, and 15 minutes later called from his cell phone. He was listening to Silky, yelling, ‘I would never make a record this out of tune.’ That was it. He thought we were idiots. Or insane.”
KID CONGO & THE PINK MONKEY BIRDS | Dracula Boots | In the Red
THE STRANGE BOYS | The Strange Boys ... and Girls Club | In the Red
THEE OH SEES | Help | In the Red
THE HUNCHES | Exit Dreams | In the Red
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