As a bit of a change of pace here on the ‘Bin, I thought I’d explore the other side of the whole musical process. This time, I’m focusing on the business of creating a vehicle for songs, and for musical careers on a ground up basis; the indie label.
I spoke with Richard Derrick; guitarist, bass player, drummer, label owner, producer, and promoter. He formed Box-O-Plenty, an independent label, in 2003 after two decades as a musician. On the label, Derrick co-produced recordings by Kevin Ayers, whom he contacted, sponsored, and hosted for shows in San Francisco and Los Angeles on which he also played bass.
Additionally, he produced and played on the solo demo recordings and live club date recordings of D Boon of Minutemen fame, and Derrick’s former roommate and friend. The label has also served as a vehicle for Derrick’s own musical excursions in ambient, and improvisational music, some of which involved now current Wilco guitarist Nels Cline.
All of these recordings are currently available to be ordered online.
I talked to Richard about the history of Box-O-Plenty, transatlantic promotion, live albums, recordings for posterity and curation, and how indie labels like Box-O-plenty fit in in an age where so many acts are looking for new and innovative ways to promote their music and get it to the people.
The Delete Bin: Thanks for talking with me, Richard. What would you say is the primary reason you started Box-O-Plenty?
Richard Derrick: Just something to do, basically. I’d spent the 1980s and 1990s in various musical situations, none of which garnered any interest from record labels, and a lot of that was my own doing. I wasn’t playing the game, but a lot of it was that I didn’t really know how to play it. I started bands, made recordings, set up gigs, but I didn’t gear my music to the current trends, didn’t obtain management, didn’t seek career advice, didn’t even do something as basic as get the band together for a photo shoot!
Looking back, though, it’s not as if anything I was doing was likely to get signed anyway. So at least I got to spend my time doing what I wanted without any added pressure.
DB: You were instrumental in bringing Soft Machine founder, and solo artist Kevin Ayers over from England in the 90s and early 2000s. The full story is available in the liner notes of the resulting live document Alive in California, which was recorded and distributed on Box-O-Plenty. What was the connection between LA and San Fran audiences in reference to Kevin and the Canterbury progressive scene for which he is known?
RD: A lot of the Canterbury Scene musicians were doing small fan-based club tours around then. I brought Kevin to LA four times, the first two in 1993 in a solo acoustic setting. This was before the Internet made this sort of thing so much easier, with e-mails replacing transatlantic phone calls (and the huge phone bills you’d get at the end of the month!). The first one in February 1993 was a real eye-opener in terms of how much of an audience there still was in the US for the Canterbury Scene.
The night of the show, it was pouring down rain. I called the club before leaving home, and [venue owner] Jo Ann was amazed at the reaction. They’d been getting about a dozen calls per day all week, pretty ecstatic ones too. No advance tickets, so a few people showed up around 5pm to make sure they were in. “We believe you now, this really IS a big deal!” It was nice to find a venue owner who saw the value in this, and Jo Ann was more than happy to host any more Canterbury Scene acts that came through town.
DB: Like who?
RD: We did two more; one with Gilli Smyth opening for Richard Sinclair’s Caravan Of Dreams trio, and the other for Kevin’s appearance in December of that same year. We’d scheduled shows for Phil Miller of Hatfield (June) and Didier Malherbe of Gong (July). But they pulled out due to uncertain bookings around the country and probable lack of money. Kevin’s second one in December was considered a one-off . It only ended because the musicians weren’t making enough money to keep doing it. Some of them came back a few years later. Gong did the best in terms of audience size. They were here four times, and they did not disappoint, that’s for sure.
DB: These shows took place very soon after the death of Kevin’s friend, guitarist, and musical collaborator Ollie Halsall. How did this affect the shows?
RD: He had just lost Ollie a year earlier, and they’d been together as musicians and friends for 18 years. He seemed to be coming to terms with it by the time he did his second solo gig, perhaps. Or perhaps not. Either way, he was in better spirits the second time he played in December of 1993. If he hadn’t accepted Ollie’s death, he was at least trying to move on with the next chapter of his own life.
DB: Kevin played some shows in LA initiated by you later in the decade, and then in 2000. How did those come about?
RD: The seeds were planted in 1997, when I was first stumbling around the Internet and seeing what it was about. I mentioned to Jo Gielen, Ayers’ manager, that I’d set up Kevin’s LA ’93 shows, had him as houseguest, etc. I also mentioned that was planning a “tribute gig” in LA for his birthday (August 16). I figured that since Kevin wasn’t playing much at that time, it might be a point of interest to fans to mention it. I closed with a joke along the lines of, “We’ve got our musicians lined up, but we’re still working on the singers – you think Kevin might sit in for a couple?”
Jo writes back and says, sure, he’ll do it, just fly him out and pay him. That changed everything – no more tribute gig. So the following spring we set up shows in Los Angeles and San Francisco, and thanks to the Internet, people came in from all over the world to see those shows. Kevin was a bit surprised, and really gratified, to know that so many people still cared about his music.
We did one more gig with Kevin in 2000, mostly with the same musicians. The Knitting Factory had just opened their LA branch, so that’s where I went. We set it up for October, but then I found out that Gong was playing there in September, so I had them put Kevin on as Gong’s opening act. That was a really special night, the first time (of only two) that Kevin and Gong did a concert together in the US.
[Ed.: See Kevin Ayers playing ‘May I?/See You Later’ at the Knitting Factory, with Richard on bass, from these shows as they’re heard on Alive in California.].
DB: The live recordings and home demos on the D Boon and Friends collection was an act of of curation on your part, particularly in the light of D Boon’s accidental death in a car accident a year or so after the tracks were recorded. What do you consider to be the balance between documenting a time in musical history very personal to you, and in making a product available for an audience?
RD: “Historical Interest” doesn’t mean anything if the music is torture to sit through. In fact, it’s kind of insulting to the fans to abuse their good will by releasing hours of unedited recordings that weren’t even intended for release in the first place. It would have been a nightmare trying to edit this stuff with analog equipment, and the result wouldn’t have come out as smoothly. It wasn’t until 2002, when I first got digital editing software, that I even considered releasing these recordings. I could play you the original recordings, and you’d be amazed what was done to salvage them.
DB: Your work with Another Umbrella, which you formed with another Minutemen collaborator Crane, seems to be custom built for the recorded format, with the use of loops and experimental textures. But, you also took the act into a live setting in places like the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles. How did that band come about?
RD: A lot of it was because I was getting tired of trying to organize bands that would never last enough to build up any momentum. When Crane and I were trying to put a band together in 1985, we ended up spending a year and a half looking for a guitarist (I was planning to be the drummer). He bought a really nice Stratocaster in 1986, I started playing it, and he just sold it to me.
We still couldn’t find a drummer, so I’d pre-record drum tracks while he’d play his bass riffs into headphones for me to hear, and that’s how we would perform live. Instead of separate amps, we’d run everything through a mixing board and PA, with me mixing it in stereo as we were playing, fading the drums in and out as needed. Eventually we found drummers and other musicians who were interested in working with us, like Paul Roessler and Emily Hay, as well as a music scene that was more amenable to this sort of music.
DB: How did the Solo Career band, including Nels Cline, come about out of the Another Umbrella project?
RD: Another Umbrella was winding down on its own anyway. There’s only so much variation you can get with that set-up, and I somehow managed to find ten years’ worth before it was time to move on. Solo Career was originally meant as a one-off. Nels was doing his “New Music Mondays” at The Alligator Lounge in Santa Monica, and he gave us a slot in February 1997.
About a month later, we decided to do another one. But we had four guitarists on hand, and that was pretty extreme, so we did two sets that day, each with two guitars – Nels Cline and Ken Rosser first. Then Joe Baiza and Mario Lalli second.
That set with Nels and Ken makes up about half of the Season Finale album. Bob and Ken had still not met before the show, but both Nels and I had played with both of them, so we knew it would work. Ken set up his gear, introduced himself, and after about five minutes of playing, we were warmed up and things just kicked in. We did eight gigs total between 1997 and 2002 with varying line-ups, but that may have been our best one ever. The rest of the album was done at a rehearsal studio in LA.
DB: Did you feel at ease committing the sessions to tape, and then producing the record?
RD: Editing on this project was much easier, as the original performances held up better. The album runs about 43 minutes, but in its unedited state it was about an hour long. Just a lot of subtle cuts here and there, tighten up what were already good ideas and make them better.
[ed.: Watch Solo Career play ‘Glide’ on YouTube]
DB: Box-O-Plenty seems to represent a fairly wide range of music, from Kevin Ayers’ R&B-flavoured jazz pop to D Boon & the Minutemen’s post punk, to the ambient music you’ve personally been involved with. Is there a specific quality you look for in terms of branding BoP, musically-speaking? How would a new band get onto your label?
RD: I don’t know if there’s a common thread between all these projects. I just look at each one individually and do what I can with it. A new band would be better off starting their own label. I have no money to put into anyone else’s thing. I wish I did, though.
DB: In a time when bands have the potential to be their own labels, offering digital downloads through blogs and other online assets, which niche do you feel labels like Box-O-Plenty fills? Is there a certain archival aspect to what you’re doing, as opposed to just promoting new music?
RD: When I first started, I figured that new music would play a part. But seven years on, it’s not really looking that way, is it? I may put out something new by me, though, depending on what comes up. I still have about four or five hours of Another Umbrella music that would be worth releasing once it’s polished up a bit, but eleven albums of it is probably enough for now.
DB: Tell me about how “Roomful of Musical Tunes” came about, the Syd Barrett tribute shows you put on with other LA musicians. Any chance of repeat shows with some of the participants, and some live recordings on Box-O-Plenty?
RD: That was another one-time gig that took on a life of its own. Syd had died a few months earlier, so a few musicians I knew put this together and invited me to join in. I’d never been part of a cover or tribute band before. But I’ve always enjoyed playing songs by certain artists at home for my own enjoyment, and Syd was right at the top of that list. So why not, right?
We ended up doing two more in 2007 and 2009. The shows had minimal rehearsal and are a little rough in places, but the feeling was there, but some of it came off really well, and everyone had a good time, so it did what it set out to do. No plans to release it on my label, but we have plenty of youtube clips up and running.
DB: How can anyone interested in the Box-O-Plenty catalogue order the music?
RD: They can get it directly from me at http://www.box-o-plenty.com . Amazon also carries the CD releases, and downloads are available at ITunes and a few other sites.