THIS ONE’S FOR HIS MOMMA: A Few Words on David Katznelson and Birdman Records



Music Features
THIS ONE'S FOR HIS MOMMA: A Few Words on David Katznelson and Birdman Records
By
Jun 30, 2003, 20:31

David Katznelson should be quarantined on a couple of counts: one, he's a record executive; two, he's collector scum. Show me someone who was both a college radio DJ and an intern for Warner A&R by  the age of 20 and I'll show you a retarded little obsesso socialite of the highest order, guest lists and volumes of useless information bombarding him like cancer. These types usually have trouble speaking; they can't hold their liquor; they employ mixtapes as come-ons; we're talking really pathetic shit here. I don't know about all that as far as David Katznelson is concerned, but I do know this: he is a mama's boy.

Yep, seems David Katznelson, a 33-year-old former VP of A&R for Warner-Reprise, responsible for assembling one of the most diverse and consistently great rosters of the immediate post-Nirvana signing boom—everyone from The Flaming Lips and Mudhoney to The Boredoms, Nick Cave, and Doug Sahm—and later fired for standing behind it, doesn't want his mom to know certain things. Never mind that today he runs more labels than you have fingers and that his catalogs jump from Eastern European classical to Japanese noise, to vintage psych, to fife and drum bands and beyond with the abandon of a guy playing chicken with a semi—David wants mom to hang his artwork on the fridge. Oh Elvis, you're such a sweet boy.

So, there were a couple of insignificant memories spoken about fine times with the young Mr. Katznelson that he'd rather not see get back to the homestead. A call at the eleventh hour asks in a charming, helpless little weenie-voice, “Could you not put that in there? I want my mom to read this.” Lucky for him, favors are reserved for those who deserve them. So here's the story of David Katznelson, likable executive scum, and the birth of his impeccable Birdman Records, told by those who were there—minus one sentence.

SHANE MACGOWAN: In the old days of record companies there were some good people. I'm talking about the '40s, '50s, and '60s. Yeah, there were some remarkable individuals around, like Berry Gordy. But Berry Gordy was just a dirty old man, you know—at the end of the day. Yeah, he had great taste in music. But Berry got old and fat. And like now the Motown label…what comes out on it now? Fuck all. Fucking rubbish.

INTERVIEWER: Isn't there anybody left?

SHANE MACGOWAN: There's yer David Katznelson. But his hands are tied by a hundred morons, you know. People who are on a higher level than him, or like, the same level as him, who don't give a shit, who want to listen to Alanis Morissette.

INTERVIEWER: But obviously an awful lot of very good music has made it through the system, because we've got a record collection.

SHANE MACCGOWAN: Less and less as the years go by.*

DAVID KATZNELSON: I got my first music industry job because I was working at a mentally retarded ward at our high school for handicapped people who were trying to graduate with everyone else. It was this city-run program, and the woman who was working with me was also an usher for Bill Graham Presents. We bonded on The Jam; that was a big, big thing for both of us. And Bruce Springsteen, I was really into him at the time. So she got me to usher the Springsteen concert in 1985, and then I started working for Bill Graham after that. See, if you ushered the shitty shows you got to usher every one. So I'd usher, like…fuck, what was that band, GTR? I'd usher that and other things nobody wanted to work, but then I'd get to usher Violent Femmes and PIL. So I was seeing them all for free, just basing it on if they looked cool or sounded cool or something. PIL said Sex Pistols of course.

I was ushering something at the Fillmore one night and I ran into a guy who had a KUSF staff t-shirt on, so I talked to him—I was 16 then—and he told me about an upcoming staff meeting. So that's when I started working at KUSF, I was a DJ and then I became assistant production director at one point. It was awesome, I was a senior in high school and I had my own radio show from 2:30 till 6:00. But none of my friends listened to it.

But fuck, all of my work in this industry was not anticipated. I never really trusted the music industry to provide a livelihood for myself.

YF: So you didn't grow up with dreams of becoming an A&R rep?

KATZNELSON: (laughing) No, not at all, I just did all of that during the summertime. Everyone in my family is a doctor or something. I was gonna go to graduate school after college, but I didn't make it. I did my honors thesis on Jack London and then started applying to English grad schools, but I'd interned at Warner for three years and they finally decided to give me a job.

YF: What made you want to intern at Warner in the first place?

KATZNELSON: Oh it was just something new. The guy who got me in was a guy named Steven Baker, who I met through a friend of a friend. I walked in to meet him and saw all these Hüsker Dü posters and Jesus and Mary Chain posters, and thought, wow, this is all my favorite stuff. So we started talking and he asked what I wanted to do, and I said I'd do anything. He explained what the different jobs were and A&R sounded the most interesting. So, for three summers I was an A&R intern, going to school in Berkley and then coming to Los Angeles for the summer.

Katznelson and Wayne Coyne

LARRY HARDY (Birdman day-to-day manager, founder of In the Red Records): I think Dave and I met in 1992, maybe '91; we bonded on record collecting. He was an intern for Reprise originally, and he got the Flaming Lips signed, that's what made him a full-fledged A&R person. Prior to bringing the Flaming Lips he brought Nirvana up at a meeting and got laughed out of the room. I think he also wanted to sign The Melvins and some other bands. When Nirvana broke they kinda saw him as a guy that was ahead of the curve.

KATZNELSON: I still have the [Nirvana] pass letter from Warners to this day; they just didn't follow up with me about them. I brought them a bunch of stuff that they paid no attention to: a bunch of the Sub Pop stuff at the time like Afghan Whigs, Operation Ivy—who ended up breaking up as soon as I brought them—Social Distortion, a whole lot of others that I'm not remembering. 

YF: They just didn't take you serious at all?

KATZNELSON: They took me serious after a while; I got a little nod at a meeting at one point in time. I started working at Warner Bros. and it was about three months later that Nirvana was the biggest thing to ever hit. They remembered that.

YF: So what was the first band you brought that they paid attention to?

KAZTNELSON: The Flaming Lips. I signed The Flaming Lips and then Mudhoney, and I was only 22.

STEVEN DROZD (The Flaming Lips): I actually joined the Lips after they got signed to Warner, but I know Dave was based out of San Francisco for a long time and the Lips used to play there quite a lot, and I think he was a big fan and he talked to them a few times. They got signed in the middle of '90, and did their first record (Hit to Death in the Future Head) and it just sorta sank like a stone, without any promo or anything. Then the drummer quit and I joined the band. So he'd already been dealing with them for a while by the time I met him.

He's a music freak; he used to make me these great compilation tapes, definitely through '93/'94, every three or four months he'd make me these great comp tapes of Cheater Slicks, The Gories, all that sort of garage stuff. And he's fun to drink with.

MARK ARM (Mudhoney): We didn't really initially look for a major label when we left Sub Pop. We thought our first thing was to eliminate the middle man, and at the time they were being distributed through Caroline. So, we had a meeting with Keith Wood (head of Caroline Records) and he told us two things: that we would have to go on tour for nine months to support the record that we were about to do on Caroline, and that we should “sweeten up” our guitar sound. And at that point we were like, well, if this is what an indie label is saying, anything goes. So we contacted a couple, I think we spoke to someone with Chrysalis, Epic, and David. And sure, in terms of personality David was head and shoulders above the rest, just like a normal human being, whereas the other guys were like…you know, one guy wore these little cowboy boots and a fringe black leather jacket, and the whole time we were with him he did not laugh once, but he would always say, “Thaaat's funny.” But that's not why we signed with Reprise; at the time the label was still considered to be an artist-friendly major label, and they had a really good 30-year track record. And it was headed by all these old people who'd been running the company fairly well, they'd signed shit from, like, Black Sabbath to Devo, and had sort of let things do what they will. But they [Reprise] said we could basically do whatever we wanted. And that was the main reason we signed with them.

Dave seemed like a really good point man, he was really into us. He just seemed like a straight-up normal guy who wasn't trying to be too hip or anything, or dazzle you with his…still to this day he knows more about music than almost anyone I know, and he's just really unpretentious about it.

Industry promo shot of Mudhoney's Warner Bros signing. Katznelson 3rd from left

KATZNELSON: I think if I'd been more experienced that first Mudhoney record (Piece of Cake) would have turned out a little different then it did. That was a really weird record and I think the band feels that way to this day. I didn't have that much input, I didn't think it was right for me to have input. I think that even though it would have been really difficult to talk to the band about this kind of stuff—they're really, really wary of major label influence—I think that maybe something could've, I mean you never know, maybe it was just the way it was supposed to come out.

MARK ARM: To keep from making the same mistakes that a lot of people who came from the American underground had made at the time (at least the way we saw it) we decided to record in the exact same place that we'd recorded the previous record, Every Good Boy Deserves Fudge. And the two biggest problems with that recording are that EGBDF was recorded on 8-track on a machine that Conrad [Uno] had been using for years and he had wired, and he'd just gotten a brand new 16-track to record Piece of Cake actually; with the advance money that we got he sunk it into this 16-track that he actually tried out on one band before us. And also it went from being an 8-track machine, which is pretty good space for each track, to a 16-track, so you're cutting it in half. So just the production of that record was kinda thin. That's probably what Dave's talking about. And of course we didn't want anyone sitting over our shoulder telling us what to do. I think the real problem with it though was that was when I was at my lowest ebb in terms of drug taking, and I wasn't really focused on the music. I think that's the major problem with the record, and that's just something I feel stupid about to this day.

YF: At one point did you start doing serious production work?

KATZNELSON: Well, my production career has been somewhat of a failure in a lot of ways. But after Flaming Lips and Mudhoney I signed The Muffs, who Warner had really wanted. But the company was a little weary about having me sign a third band: I was the lowest paid A&R person in the country, completely inexperienced as far as taking the bands to the studio and making a record with them.

KIM SHATTUCK (The Muffs): I met Dave for the first time at the Coconut Teaszer in Hollywood where we were opening for another band. Afterwards he came up and introduced himself and said he liked us. He explained that he was from Warner Brothers and I thought he looked really young. I was leery at that time about major labels from a past bad experience but kept my mind open anyway. He called me later and asked me if I was OK about doing a possible demo deal and that's how it started. I think we met Rob later when Dave dragged him to one of our rehearsals.

KATZNELSON: My friend Rob Cavallo—who I'd been friends with since I was an intern—at that point had wanted to produce a record for a long time and had not been given the green light to do so. Nothing was going on with either of us, so we'd just hang around everyday and listen to music. I made this deal with Rob where he'd get to co-sign [The Muffs] with me if we could take the band to the studio and co-produce the record, because I wanted to have the experience. So that was the first record we did, and it was a horrible…it was a horrible time actually.

KIM SHATTUCK: Oh god, I didn't know he was so ambitious about being a producer. It was like we were the guinea pigs, production wise. Yeah, it was really, really hard. Dave was all insecure that we were gonna find out he didn't know anything. We knew. There was all sorts of high drama regarding the different band members, most of which had nothing to do with the actual recording. It was like Melrose Place. Or Sodom and Gomorrah.

KATZNELSON: The band was hard to get along with, I was young at the time, and Rob and I kind of wound up doing a good cop/bad cop thing with me as the bad cop, and that was a little bit too much pressure for me. I don't think I was emotionally ready for it.

I knew what I wanted to hear and the sounds that we got out of that record, some of those guitar sounds are killer. We were really meticulous about it; the process took a little long for a punk rock record to me, about three or four months I think.

With James Lowe of the Electric Prunes

KIM SHATTUCK: We were never a punk rock band like he kept insisting we were. On the other hand I didn't like sitting there watching our rhythm guitarist taking all day on one song, believe me. But either way you look at it, it was produced by seven completely dysfunctional people, all talking shit about each other behind each others' backs. There were some totally good times too and like anything it's not all bad or all good. It was a good way for me to personally figure out who I couldn't work with anymore and I learned a lot from that production, good and bad. I'm sure Dave did too. Hopefully we all learned something. I've heard he's produced some other bands, I'm glad it's working out for him now.

LARRY HARDY: He worked on the Muffs album and then was keen to continue working in the studio. I had him do the Blacktop record (on In The Red) first, after that he did the Bassholes for me, and he's good buddies with the Cheater Slicks. At this point they don't even like doing a record without him.

YF: The trepidation that you said Warner had about you having a third band, do you think you were feeling that very much at the time?

KATZNELSON: I got that sense, and I understood. I was there to provide information; I think an A&R department needs to have somebody like that. I was really so low paid and was going to see three different shows a night for everybody and listening to all the demo tapes. My first year as an intern I was going out to see every hair band in town because that's what I was sent out to see, that's what the big thing was.

But on the whole, I understood where they (Warner) were at, I didn't have any animosity towards them. I was blessed man; I was working with two bands that I'd been in love with for a long, long time, and I was just learning the ropes. And the bands pretty much broke even. I was having a great time; I had an unlimited record buying budget, how could I say no to that?

YF: It's interesting to me that, considering Mudhoney and The Flaming Lips were the first two bands that you brought, Mudhoney never seemed to have the kind of success that might have been expected after Nirvana became so popular, and Flaming Lips didn't for several years after they signed to Warner Bros., yet you were able to start bringing bands like The Boredoms who had even less commercial potential.

KATZNELSON: It was a different time in the music industry, and the real main reason why I got to sign The Boredoms was because it was free. I went and saw them at The Lingerie, and it's still one of the greatest shows I've ever seen in my life, top ten for sure. I've probably seen the Boredoms 30 to 40 times, but that one's the quintessential. Maybe it was just because it was the first, but boy, I still can't imagine the things I saw that night.

YOSHIMI P-WE (Boredoms): David was just like an American who came out from American comics as I was imagining from my childhood. I think he has same kind of face.

KATZNELSON: At the end of that show someone turned to me and said “you know, they have a record out on Warner Japan.” And I was like, you're kidding me. It had never been serviced to anyone in America because they assumed it'd be too weird.

YF: Weren't they still on Shimmy Disc in America at that point?

KATZNELSON: No, and in fact they weren't even on Warner Japan anymore, it was a one-off. They were on Shimmy Disc, they then signed to Warner Japan and did Pop-Tatari, which was the one-off, and then they were doing Wow II with John Zorn—I don't remember what label that came out on—and that's when I came in. I'd heard of The Boredoms, I mean that's why I went to the show, but never, never expected what I got out of it. So, I licensed the record to America and Warner Japan was so psyched because the last band they'd licensed to America was Loudness years before that, and they wound up signing the band for another four or five records because of it. So that record was free, aside from the cost of shipping tape and that sort of thing.

On the set of the CAPTAIN JACK film shoot (Capt. Jack in Green)

YF: So, is that a good example of why you were able to bring the bands that you did: realistic expectations about what would happen in terms of sales, modest budgets comparatively, that sort of thing?

KATZNELSON: No. Roberta Peterson, who was my boss, thought The Flaming Lips were going to be the biggest thing ever. She'd signed Jane's Addiction and Devo, so she had a history of picking up stuff like that. And with Mudhoney, you take an independent band that's sold over 100,000 records it's usually worth taking a shot at. And like I said, it was a different time too. Credibility was something that was valued by major labels, and will be valued again. You already see it. Everybody needs their White Stripes right now, and there will be some bands signed that shouldn't necessarily be on major labels but will get signed anyway.

MARK ARM: I think Dave was kinda right as far as the label thinking “these guys sell a lot of records on Sub Pop, Nirvana sold a lot of records on Sub Pop, they're from Seattle, we'll probably make a lot of money on this thing.” The thing they didn't realize is that we'd pretty much touched the ceiling; for a band like us to sell 30-50k records is a lot. Our biggest selling record was Piece of Cake and that was strictly due to the time. It came out in the height of the grunge fashion.

YF: Was “She Don't Use Jelly” [by The Flaming Lips] the thing that catapulted you?

KATZNELSON: Oh yeah, that was one of the biggest hits of the year at a time when “alternative rock” was the number one thing. But that record had been out for like a year and I was getting a lot of shit for it. There was that great Lollapalooza where it was like The Lips, The Boredoms, Nick Cave, and George Clinton, and I would go on tour and the band didn't really understand why nothing was happening with it, and I had fans coming up to me telling me to get rid of them so they could thrive. It was actually a very weird time in that way; here it is, honestly one of my favorite bands of all time, and people are giving me shit for hindering them. I remember the Bad Livers especially giving me shit about it once. But I could not get the label to do anything with it.

STEVEN DROZD: To us that [Lollapalooza] was big stuff. We put that record out [Transmissions From the Satellite Heart] and obviously it didn't do great, then that Lollapalooza thing happened and it still doesn't seem like that's what kicked it in for us, I think it was doing that Candlebox tour, of all things, that really helped that record pick up a little bit.“Jelly” was really sort of a flukey, almost semi-one-hit-wonder thing. That wasn't really even a big hit, it just sort of bought us some time, helped us sell enough records that we wouldn't get the axe.

What's really weird is that it was Transmissions that sold really well, and then Clouds Taste Metallic was the one we put out in 1995, and that one hardly did anything. It's really bizarre that they kept us around after that record. It seems to me that if we didn't have Katznelson working it for us right then, I'm not sure how we would have survived. I think it's to his credit that we were able to do Zaireeka and The Soft Bulletin, that we were given another chance.

KATZNELSON: After [“Jelly”] hit a bunch of labels were interested in hiring me, and some stuff went down at Warner Bros. where I suddenly had a bit of leverage to ask for a little bit more. Also some things happened where I almost left because things were said to me about some of the bands I was working with.

YF: Anything you can divulge?

KATZNELSON: Let's see if I can put it in a diplomatic way…Courtney Love accused Mudhoney of writing some negative shit about her in My Brother The Cow. And it was strange because the song [“Into Your Shtick”] wasn't about her, and some of the people at Warner Bros. were close to Courtney and therefore took her side on the matter. So that's what pissed me off; you should show loyalty to the band you're working with.

MARK ARM: “Into Your Shtick” wasn't really about Courtney; it applies, but it applies to Axl Rose. It applies to a lot of people, it applies to people who are a lot more indie rock as well, just people who take themselves way too seriously. There's definitely a couple of lines in there that refer to Nirvana, but the line “blow your brains out too” was intended to be more of a general thing, and not so specifically targeted.

KATZNELSON: Again, at the time I had leverage because they wanted to keep young people there and I was having a hit right then and other labels were after me, that sort of thing. So I could tell the powers that be wanted me to stay, so I was like, “You know what I need?” They said “What?” “I need to have my own label!” They said, “You're damn right!” And so I said “You know what else I need? I need someone to help me run that label!” They didn't give me very much money, just enough to start out.

LARRY HARDY: The money to run Birdman was part of his deal with Warner Bros., which was how he paid me. We were able to operate totally independently. We could have done whatever we wanted; they couldn't veto it or anything. They just gave him a big lump sum to operate it on, initially.

YF: So Birdman officially started, when, 1995?

KATZNELSON: I think; I'd been putting out 7-inches for a while but I can't really remember the year. The initial money for the 7-inches was just mine.

YF: That would've been the Culturcide/Caroliner 7-inch and the V-3 record?

KATZNELSON: Well the V-3 record wasn't out yet. And by the way, Johan Kugelberg still owes me $500 for that 7-inch. And I wish you'd print that.

YF: Did that have something to do with Onion [Kugelberg's short-lived American distributed label]?

KATZNELSON: Yeah, he was like, “oh hey, will you do this promotional 7-inch around the time of their CD? It'd be kinda cool.” And I said, “Okay, I'll do that but I don't want to pay for it.” He said he'd pay for it and never did. And then the single itself is just completely weird…

YF: Yeah, I really like that record!

KATZNELSON: Well what's really great is you have the band slaggin' on Johan; there's this one great phone conversation where the band needs like $50 to fix the car so they call the record company and you just hear Johan balking.

YF: So how did Birdman evolve into something more than just a fun project?

KATZNELSON: Well, because of The Boredoms I had artists approaching me all the time who would never be on major labels and were great, so Birdman was gonna be my outlet. The Boredoms in a lot of ways were the greatest thing to happen to me as an A&R person because it just opened up all these worlds to me musically. And you can't underestimate the power of the unlimited record-buying budget. Like when I signed the Boredoms I got really into Japanese noise, just really affected by it. All of a sudden I had the ability to go out and buy 30 or 40 CDs, all this Japanese shit that was really expensive: Fushitsusha, Heijokaidan, Hanadensha, Merzbow, Masonna. With every genre of music it was like that, I'd get into a genre or an artist and just buy up as much of it as possible, maybe buy a book about the music and write down every album that they said was the best of all of it.  

But then you just break down barriers…5 percent of every genre is awesome, I can't think of any genre that doesn't have that 5 percent. Realizing that, I just opened my mind to everything. I was a huge Caroliner fan, and Grux was good enough to give me some material to put out on 7-inch. It was cool and I was into it, but just like anything you do and are into, you want to see it grow in a good way.

We got really lucky because right after John Frusciante left the Red Hot Chili Peppers Michael Ostin (then head of Warner A&R) came into an A&R meeting with a tape of solo stuff that John had done. And I listened to it and just freaked out, and everyone looked at me like I was completely crazy. But Michael didn't, he kind of understood it, and so we talked to John about putting out his first record. And for the right reasons, I would think—or not—Rick Rubin decided to put it out instead. But then I still wanted to do something on Birdman with John, so that eventually became one of the first things we did.

YF: Were there other labels that you were looking to as influences in how Birdman developed?

KATZNELSON: No…Larry Hardy was my main influence, because he'd run In The Red so well for a long time already, and I really respect the way he does things. The thing is, what happens is that the first year of running an independent label there's not much going on, because it takes a long time to get a release out there. It's a waiting game, and Larry was there to sort of lead me through it because as a major label guy you're used to things happening the next day, whether they work or not.

Getting their liquor on: DK w/In The Red Records' recording artists Cheater Slicks and Mick Collins (2nd from right)

YF: Your job with Warner ended just a couple of years ago. The same guy who infamously dropped Wilco is the same guy responsible for your departure?

KATZNELSON: David Kahne—we did not get along from day one. The first conversation we had, I said “You realize I've been given the right to responsibly sign whatever I want over time,” because I had been. And he looked at me and said “Well who are you to do that?”

YF: Who else had you brought in the interim, in the latter half of the '90s?

KATZNELSON: Well to be honest I had signed a couple of things that hadn't done real well to that point. I signed Spectrum, which was probably a bad idea for a major label, and I also signed Tarnation, which didn't do very well at that point. I did sign Shane MacGowan, and I think I'd brought Nick Cave already. Maybe the Texas Tornadoes. By that time I was working with 17 artists because a bunch of people had gotten fired or left, and when David got there I'd been there for seven years, which is pretty bizarre.

I had turned in this Mudhoney record right after he'd gotten there, and I kept working on him about it until finally he loved this one song on the record, and you could tell he liked it so much that he wanted to mix it. And I wouldn't let him because the band didn't want that, so instead he made me go in there over and over again, picking the song apart. He either hated something or wanted to have his role with it, and that wasn't the way I was taught. I was taught that a real record man makes things based on his gut.

MARK ARM: The whole interaction on our end of it was, you know, this guy came in, he was the new head of A&R at Reprise, he was hired because he'd just produced this “breakthrough” Sugar Ray recording, so obviously this guy has an ear for good music.

That was the first time we had any kind of conflict or felt any pressure from the record label. Before that we'd just tell them when we were going to go in and record, where it was gonna be, and it would happen. Then all of a sudden we heard “David Kahne demands demos.” We'd recorded it on a 4-track in a basement and sent the songs down to David just so he could hear what was going on. And if you have any clue you can listen to something like that, squint, and kinda tell what things sound like or what they will sound like when you get into a bigger recording studio. And David Kahne couldn't.

LARRY HARDY: Dave had to fight to get the last Mudhoney album out and as soon as that was out they dropped them. They didn't drop The Flaming Lips, but Nick Cave was dropped, The Boredoms were axed, Tarnation was axed, basically just because he didn't like Dave. And as soon as he was in a position to fire Dave he did.

KATZNELSON: David Kahne got offered a job with the Firm (artist management group) and started reporting directly to Roger Ames, who at that point was the head of the Time Warner Musicgroup. He did that, and then I got fired two weeks later. That was a little over two years ago.

LARRY HARDY: It was the same sort of thing with Wilco; he didn't like their album (Yankee Hotel Foxtrot) and everybody else there really liked them and wanted to keep them. Howie Klein left the company, which basically gave him the green light; there was nobody above him to say he couldn't. He told Wilco they needed a radio song and they weren't budging, so since he didn't get his input he just dropped them in a heartbeat. 

YF: Have you been going full-speed with Birdman since then?

KATZNELSON: Yeah, actually I've started six different labels now: Birdman, Tariff, Sepia Tone, Tornado, BRG (Birdman Recording Group) and Howling. When I left Warner I went and had a couple of interviews for other A&R gigs and got a couple of “callbacks,” but at that point I was so offended by the interview because it was someone trying to impose their record making process on me. So after those interviews I just decided to try this by myself. The only way I'd ever do that again is if it was for someone that I truly respected.

YF: There are a few things you've released that actually started as Warner Bros. projects, correct?

KATZNELSON: The Electric Prunes and Pearls Before Swine.

YF: Wasn't “More Oar” [the Alexander “Skip” Spence tribute album] supposed to be on Reprise originally?

KATZNELSON: No. Bill Bentley—a wonderful human being who's still at Warner Bros., one of the few—pitched the Thirteenth Floor Elevators tribute [Where the Pyramid Meets the Eye] to, I think it was Sire? I can't remember exactly, but it wasn't just Warner straight. He ended up doing it, but then when he pitched Skip Spence they just balked at it, they didn't want to do anything else like that. So I ended up with it.

YF: And Electric Prunes?

KATZNELSON: Electric Prunes just took so long to get out that I'd left the company by the time the compilation was done, and Howie Klein knew how much work I'd put into it, so he signed off on letting me have the compilation in perpetuity. Good guy.

LARRY HARDY: Also, as they [Warner Bros.] dropped all of Dave's bands he was determined to still work with those same people, like Paula Frazier [of Tarnation]; there's talk of doing stuff with Flaming Lips on and off, weird side projects; The Boredoms, of course.

Still a rising star: with Warner Bros prez

YF: One of the main things Birdman has been associated with has been the Otha Turner CDs. Did those wind up coming about through Jim Dickinson?

KATZNELSON: Yeah, I got to know Jim first through Texas Tornadoes and then through Mudhoney. Jim would send me tapes of anything his son [Luther] had to do with. At one point part of the package was the Otha Turner single that Luther had recorded, and I just flipped out over it. Luther and Otha have developed a very, very close friendship and musical relationship, and Luther had been recording him for four or five years. They wanted to put a record out, and of course now it seems obvious, “yeah of course, put an Otha Turner record out,” but no one had done it then. And I don't think people really understood it when it first came out (Everybody Hollerin' Goat) because the first twenty minutes is pretty solid fife before you get into somewhat more traditional blues. But in the process Otha and his entire family have opened themselves up to me, and it's just been wonderful.

YF: Luther's opinion of you was enough; there weren't any trust issues?

KATZNELSON: I don't think Otha thought along those lines.

YF: Well the reason I ask is because there's a zine called 50 Miles of Elbow Room (#2) that has an extensive interview with Otha and the rest of the band, and towards the end of the interview Otha brings up the fact that so many people have come to interview or document him with this attitude that they're doing him a favor, but really coming to exploit him in a way…

KATZNELSON: That wasn't really the way it was then. See the difference is that the picnics—which already had more white people than in years past—I think those were still—and I could be wrong—somewhat more localized. But now, we put the record out and he was on the cover of Living Blues, the article talked about all the stuff he's been doin'. I really think a lot of that [outside interest] came after the record. And sometimes you wonder if you did the right thing by putting the record out and exposing this stuff to the world, but you know what? I don't think Otha should feel exploited, I think he's a living legend, he's one of the few true Americans. When Bill Clinton was in office I tried to get Clinton aware of Otha, you know, during Black History Month have him or someone else make a point of saying “this is a man who needs to be honored.” 

YF: Do you think the integration of the picnics has been bothersome to him?

KATZNELSON: Nah. You know what? People will go and talk to Otha, but they'll just show up and disturb him, they won't offer him any retribution for the time he's giving them, which I think is just purely annoying. Otha is a working man; he works every day, he manages his farm, his whole life has been work. I think his whole thing is, you work—you get paid. So when people just show up there he's like “who the hell are you?' The fact of the matter is—this is a very, very simple thing, which should probably be carried over into all areas of art: if you ask these guys to play for you…from the very beginning, as the Bible says “…and the musicians were paid.”

YF: You've also done some B-movie soundtrack releases (Carnival of Souls and the Herschell Gordon Lewis compilation).

KATZNELSON: Larry Hardy was an old punk rocker in Orange County and was friends with a guy (Mike Vraney) who was the manager for Black Flag. Larry turned him on to the horror movie genre, and the guy freaked out about it and eventually started Something Weird Video. So those two were still close and he helped us get the rights to all that stuff.

LARRY HARDY: He [Vraney] has the rights to those things now and so it was actually his idea, “we should do these soundtracks.” For Carnival of Souls I tracked down the guy who did the movie in 1994, I wanted to do it on In The Red. He said yes and agreed to it; he actually started digging through his storage to find the music and then he passed away. Then I guess his partner had sold the rights to the movie to some guy here in Hollywood and that was the end of it. Then in '96 or '97 the guy resurfaced that owned the movie, he called me up and said “I was told that you were asking about this.” He was talking about trying to sell it off to Rob Zombie who could do remixes with it, but we just wanted to put it out and have a record of pipe organ music. So he licensed the rights to us, then we got sued over it. This woman that was in the movie contacted us and asked for $5000 because her photo's on the front of the cover and her voice is on the CD, taken from the movie. We went to small claims court and the judge said he didn't know anything about the laws pertaining to things like this and that he'd mail us a decision. He sent us one saying “pay her,” so yeah, one of my projects got Dave sued.

KATZNELSON: We're actually going to be doing more soundtracks, we might do a Best of Something Weird Video next; it wouldn't be all horror movies, just various B-movie stuff.

YF: You mentioned the Texas Tornadoes earlier; one of your labels (Tornado) is almost entirely centered on Doug Sahm. How did that relationship wind up coming about? 

KATZNELSON: Bill Bentley brought me the Texas Tornadoes; they'd either been dropped or disbanded, I don't remember which, but they were no longer on Warner. He introduced me to Doug Sahm and I just realized instantly that he's one of the greatest artists, human beings, characters, everything.

LARRY HARDY: Doug Sahm had it in him that he really wanted to do a country album and Dave wanted him to, so Dave put up all the money and did it. Doug and Dave were both sort of figuring it would be cool to try to get country radio to play it, but Doug pointed out that it would be hard to market it to Nashville and Americana radio on Birdman Records, a label out of Burbank known for Japanese noise bands. So Dave decided to call it Tornado and make it look like Doug's label. But it was basically just a Birdman release with a different logo on it.

YF: Since Doug Sahm unfortunately passed away, do you have any future plans for Tornado?

KATZNELSON: This fall we're reissuing the first Joe King Carasco record, and we signed a band called Los Pacaminos, which is very Texas Tornadoes-like but it's all English guys and includes Paul Young…

YF: What?

KATZNELSON: …you would never, ever know it unless I told you that. It's genius.

YF: And Sepia Tone is something you're doing with Gary Held (of Revolver Distribution)?

KATZNELSON: And Larry Hardy.

YF: So how involved of a process is obtaining the rights to major releases by people like Tony Joe White, Ornette Coleman and Alice Coltrane?

KATZNELSON: We don't really have the rights; it's a really weird setup. I had some friends at Rhino from my days at Warner and I asked them what it would take to license this stuff, and they said I could have a deal. But we don't actually license it from them—we buy it from them. We're the only people who can buy it from them. And what we do is, if you pick out 15 titles that you wanna do—and the Warner catalog is pretty well picked over, they've done a really good job with that—then we do the artwork, give it to them, they manufacture it after we've remastered it and everything, and then we buy if from them at a higher price. They get their royalties that way. Then we put it out.

But we each got our own picks. Larry really wanted to do the DMZ record on Sire, which took a long time to get but we finally did. Gary's an Incredible String Band fan, so we got some records by them. I really like Josh White during the period in the 1950s, when he was one of the only blues guys to actually make a living; we got one of his best records, Empty Bed Blues.

YF: Is BRG sort of the umbrella for all of this?

Greg Dulli w/a pie-eyed DK

KATZNELSON: Yeah, see the idea is that right now the music industry's in a really weird place, and there are a lot of great artists out there right now who are being underutilized, there's a lot of great catalog out there. I wanted to create a company that would be flexible enough to deal with any kind of music that does not need radio exploitation to be successful. Any kind of music that is good, quality, we would be able to work with it, and if it doesn't fit a certain label we could create a label for it.

MARK ARM: We always felt like he was in our corner. He had an opportunity to move with Lenny Waronker over to Dreamworks, and he chose to stay at Reprise even though he loved working for [him]. And I think in his heart he was really freaked out about the change that was gonna be happening at Warner Bros., but I think a large part of what kept him there was his loyalty to his bands. I guess that's the biggest compliment I could give him in terms of being someone who works among those kind of people: he's a human being.

STEVEN DROZD: Dave, for what it's worth, always just seemed like a guy who emotionally cared about music. I know that's like a hippie thing to say, but that just seemed like the bottom line for him.

YOSHIMI P-WE: We do not know much about what he did for us. Not even sure about what he is thinking…just like a guy from American comics. But we know he loves our music truly.

LARRY HARDY: He was one of the rare major label guys who never screwed anybody over.

MARK ARM: And in some ways I'm really surprised that he lasted as long as he did. He just signed bands that he loved.  I'm not even sure how it happened; I guess there was Danny Fields and then there was him.

* Shane MacGowan quotes from an unpublished interview by Victoria Clarke, printed by permission.


Filed Under: MusicMusic Features

RSSComments (0)

Trackback URL

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.