IPECAC: MEN AT WERCK
AN INTERVIEW WITH GREG WERCKMAN OF IPECAC RECORDSSo what do you do when you're the vocalist in one of the great alternative acts of the nineties and your band folds? Lesser singers may well fade into obscurity, not so Mike Patton. Although never strictly a one band man, the former Faith no More frontman strived to make the term "extra curricular" a full time activity. With Faith No More out of the way, Mike could concentrate on all the ideas he had been storing up, this time by his own rules and completely free of discipline. The question was who would release this material? Step forward Mr Greg Werckman, Mike's manager and former head of the cult label Alternative Tentacles. The two would combine to create Ipecac Recordings, a label to house Mike's projects like Fantomas and Tomahawk, as well as create a home for friends like the Melvins and acts they have a mutual admiration for, such as Isis and Dalek.
by Daniel Robert
Armed with a list of questions, I tracked down Greg Werckman at his North California office. The 43-year-old balances running the label with fatherhood, admitting he doesn't get out to gigs much these days. But then with his acts promoting Ipecac the world over, he really doesn't need to. Greg took the time to talk to me about the history of Ipecac, his association with Patton and also a little about himself.
PSF: Give me a brief overview of your career pre-Patton.
GW: I worked at a talent agency in NYC where I worked with people like Timothy Leary, Abbie Hoffman, Hunter Thompson and Jello Biafra, booking personal appearances. Then Jello convinced me to move to San Francisco to manage his label Alternative Tentacles. After eight years there, I did a couple of years of A&R at Mercury and then started managing artists including Mike Patton, and we formed Ipecac in April 1999.
PSF: So how and when did you and Mike first meet?
GW: Maybe 1989 or 1990 at a NoMeansNo show in San Francisco. He was a fan of the band and they were on Alternative Tentacles. I met him through Billy Gould of Faith No More. We bonded over video games and basketball!
PSF: So you started as friends, then you ended up managing him. What inspired you to start up a label?
GW: As his manager, I was talking to some labels about his upcoming Fantomas project in late 1998. There was some label interest, but nothing that was too interesting to us. I had plenty of label experience so (I) suggested we just put it out ourselves- it made sense to keep all the creative control. Our friends the Melvins were also looking for a home and that just sealed the deal. What choice did we have?
PSF: How much of a financial burden was it to get off the ground?
GW: None! Sounds weird, huh? We were very fortunate. We found a distributor (Caroline) that was willing to advance us enough to start up, plus we did everything pretty low budget. We still do. Right off the bat, our first three records did very well! We were recouped in a few months. We both had a little money stashed away but didn't really need it.
PSF: Did your time at Alternative Tentacles teach you how to do things right or did you avoid their techniques when starting Ipecac?
GW: It absolutely did! It taught me that that the artist comes first and that honesty is an important and missing trait in so much of the music industry. Jello Biafra is a great guy who taught me a lot. He deserves way more respect than he gets.
PSF: Okay, so we know what an influence Jello was on you, but what have you learned from Mike about running a label?
GW: About running a label? I guess more the philosophy of doing what the artist wants and understanding the artist.
PSF: How did you arrive at the name (Ipecac)?
GW: It was suggested by King Buzzo (Melvins, Fantomas). It is a medicine from a Brazilian root that induces vomiting. At the time, it seemed perfect to describe our music. Music that would cause people to get sick!
PSF: How "hands on" are you and Mike? Obviously Mike works and tours a lot, but what about yourself?
GW: We are EXTREMELY hands on. I oversee the day to day of the worldwide operation, but Mike and I speak several times a day. He is a big reason why a lot of artists are comfortable with us. These days, we are pretty lucky, bands have been coming to us, really cool bands that we would not think knew who we are. We are chasing a couple of big ones, but finding bands is not a problem. We get around 30 demos a week.
PSF: What's the scale of your operation?
GW: We have a few people in New York, a couple in Los Angeles, then Mike and me in northern California. We share people in London and Sydney with other labels.
PSF: What criteria do you look for in an artist?
GW: They have to be unique. There are so many bands that sound like other bands in a specific genre; we try to find someone that has something fresh to offer. Of course, you get demos based on bands already on the label and people don't understand that we are not interested in other bands that sound like the Melvins because we HAVE the Melvins! We also look for artists that are good people with a realistic and healthy outlook on their art.
PSF: How different are your tastes to Mike's?
GW: Hmmm, pretty different. Mike has more of an avant-garde taste than I do. I like traditional rock more than he does, but we both like things that are unique and neither of us likes to limit what we do.
PSF: Knowing how eclectic some of Mike's projects can be, have you ever turned down one of his potential releases?
GW: Are you kidding? No way! His stuff always sells!!!!! Now if you were to ask me if I listen to all of his stuff then I would say no, I don't. But I respect Mike and his amazing talent. He really is about as unique as you can get. He's not along for the ride- he's the driver!
PSF: That's a great line! Now if I could just go back to the monetary aspects of the label for a moment. Given that major labels generally bleed an album dry before sending an act back into the studio, is it a problem financially that a band like the Melvins are so prolific?
GW: That is a great question. One of the first things the Melvins said to us when starting with Ipecac was they wondered if we could help them commit career suicide by releasing a trilogy of records, one every other month. We actually thought it was a cool idea. It did great! The Melvins can do that. I have never understood why labels get so protective of their bands. Let ‘em do singles and compilations and splits, it only helps to get the name out there!
PSF: One of the factors that appeals to me so much about Ipecac is that you seem to nurture your acts, i.e. they're given the freedom to grow and not thrown on the scrap heap after one album. I guess loyalty is a big issue for you?
GW: More than just loyalty- it's important that our artists are a part of everything we do on their behalf. They are a HUGE part of the process. It's easier said than done when you have so many bands. We want them to know that they are appreciated, and for them to know how their record is being worked. "Artist friendly" is almost cliché to say, but it is our number one goal. The development is the fun part. Seeing a band like Isis grow is the greatest thing, and working to get people to listen the likes of Mugison is a goal. We have to offer something that bigger labels can't.
PSF: Do you have much input with the artist both during and after recording an album, or are they just "let loose", so to speak?
GW: We have some input. We like to have a say but if it makes the artist uncomfortable, we back off. Communication is always the key. We don't want a butt ugly record cover. After the record is done, we have a lot more say because that is what we do best.
PSF: So how do you work up promotional ideas with your artists?
GW: We all brainstorm and listen to ideas and take suggestions from EVERYONE, that includes fans and record stores.
PSF: What ambitions do you still have for the label?
GW: To be honest, things are going so well, we'd just like to keep going in the direction we are going at the pace we are going. We are not looking to get a huge overhead and put out 20 records a year. We don't want to lose the feel that we have. We're building label and band identity and have a pretty good reputation, but most importantly, our bands are happy.
PSF: Speaking of bands, which artists would you sell a kidney to sign to Ipecac?
GW: Hmmm... Willie Nelson, Sigur Ros, and Jesus and Mary Chain.
PSF: And what would you consider to be your greatest success story to date?
GW: There are quite a few to choose from, like putting out a Kids of Widney High album (a record by a class of special education students in L.A.), or the first Fantomas record. But for the purpose of this interview, it would have to be the rise and development of Isis. But to be honest, just about everything has been a success.
PSF: Are there any labels you share a mutual admiration with right now?
GW: Sure! I really like Anticon, Quaanum, Warp. There are a lot of great labels.
PSF: So what can we expect from Ipecac in 2008?
GW: The new record from Dub Trio, a band from Europe called Farmers Market, new singles from Isis, a new Melvins album, a DVD/CD of a short film that Mike did the score for, a DVD of the Fantomas/Melvins Big Band live, new Desert Sessions as well as reissues of old Desert Sessions, a new album from Rahzel, a solo album from Zach Hill of Hella, Mikes new project of Italian pop songs called Mondo Cane, another Morricone compilation, and some big surprises...
PSF: Finally, have you any advice for anyone wishing to start their own label?
GW: Well, that's a loaded question. It was "easy" for us because we started with Mike Patton and the Melvins, artists with a built in fan base. The key is obviously to find good artists with reasonable expectations and honest hard working distribution. My advice would be don't expect much, it's a crowded field. Just try to keep overheads down and support local music.
Also see the Ipecac website
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