KILL ROCK STARS
Interviews by Jason Gross
Following in the footsteps of the premiere American punk labels of the 80's such as SST, Dischord, Alternative Tentacles and Epitaph, the numero uno U.S. punk label of the 90's arguably was a Washington State institution which boldly called itself Kill Rock Stars. As the brain-kiddie of Matthew 'Slim' Moon, KRS started out supporting local artists and spoken word releases but soon become home to a radical, empowering women's movement called riot grrl, featuring such head-spinning, game changing bands as Bikini Kill and Sleater-Kinney (who put out some of the most vital, important rock records of that decade), which was happening in conjunction with another northwest punk-inspired phenomenon christened 'grunge.' KRS' small but powerful roster would also include the likes of Elliot Smith, Gossip, Bratmobile, Deerhoof and the Decemberists. Later, the label would also put out reissues of such pre-grrl, post-punk touchstones as Kleenex/Liliput, Delta 5 and Essential Logic (assisted by a certain editor here at PSF).
In 2006, Moon moved on to work with Nonesuch Records and handed KRS over to Portia Sabin who originally planned to close the label eventually but found so much to carry on that she's keep it humming since then. Moon meanwhile worked in artist management and then ministry work.
PSF cornered and interrogated the power couple about their incredible work with KRS.
PSF: Where did the name 'Slim' come from?
When I was 16, I ran away from home and spent a few months as a homeless punk on the "Ave" in Seattle. The punks starting calling me Slim because I wore cowboy boots and denim over my leather jacket and was really into the "country punk" bands from L.A..
PSF: Which artists were an inspiration to you when you were growing up and what was it about them that appealed to you the most?
SM: When you use the term "growing up," I picture myself as a young kid or before my teens. I just really liked Bob Dylan and the Beatles. Once I started going to shows, the music that inspired me was a constant moving target. I was always discovering something new and had new favorites all the time. The Clash, The Smiths, Black Flag, X, Patti Smith, the Gun Club, and the early punk rock albums of the Replacements had a particularly big effect on me. I loved the anger and cynicism of punk rock, but I also loved the enormous sense of radical possibility.
PSF: Was there anything you think that was unique about Washington that led you to want to work on a label?
SM: I grew up in Montana and Seattle and then moved to Olympia, Washington at 18. I know that the music scene in Seattle in the '80's was very fresh exciting, and that the music and art scene in Olympia in the early 90's was very exciting and supportive, which made it possible for me to successfully start a label. There were not enough labels at that time to put out all the great music that was happening, so I felt that I could contribute.
PSF: Before KRS started, what other labels were an inspiration to you in terms of their output and how they operated?
SM: Most especially, Touch and Go and Dischord. But also K Records, SST, Sub Pop.
PSF: Other than putting out records by friends, what else motivated you to start a label and distribute records?
SM: Some of my friends had dealt with labels and I'd heard a lot of stories about bands being treated badly or getting ripped off. I wanted to run my label in a way that was fair and respectful for the artists.
PSF: How did you come up with the name Kill Rock Stars?
SM: In 1990, I decided to try my hand at painting. I only did it for a few weeks, a few paintings. All my paintings had words in them. On one of them, for some reason, I scribbled "Kill Rock Stars" across the front. A year later, I named the record label after the painting.
PSF: What were some of the biggest logical hurdles you had to deal with as KRS started?
SM: Back in those days, the biggest hurdle was getting distribution. There was no Internet back then, of course. Most people bought most of their records at record stores. Mail order and tour sales did exist, but the vast majority of sales happened at record stores, so to be a functional record label, you had to have good distribution, getting your records into stores. But having the records in stores alone was no guarantee of sales. You also needed to make sure that people had a chance to hear about the record, so touring, publicity and radio play was absolutely crucial. I started the label when I was 23 years old and had no idea how to get a distributor, how to get magazines to write about the records, or how to get radio stations to play the records. I was lucky enough to have good records, and I was persistent enough to convince a distributor to take us on. I literally went to every magazine store in three cities, bought every music magazine I could find, and copied the addresses from the masthead. That's how I created our initial publicity list. I looked at the play lists in the College Music Journal (CMJ) and copied down all the radio call letters, then looked up the address of every radio station. That's how I created our first radio promo list.
PSF: After KRS started, did you find a kinship with other indie labels?
SM: Yes, definitely. I always saw our mission as a more ethical alternative to the way major labels do things, and to release better music than what the majors release. Other indie labels had similar values, so we had a lot of kinship. I did not end up feeling much kinship with indie labels who just acted like mini-majors.
PSF: What was your criteria for selecting bands to be on KRS?
SM: I think I generally had two different sets of criteria. Many of the artists we worked with I selected because I really liked the music and I felt that it was "meaningful" or "important" in some way- artistically, aesthetically, politically. The other thing I was mindful of was putting out releases that would document a certain "scene" of bands, which included the Olympia scene, but also included like-minded bands from related sister scenes in places like D.C., Oakland, Portland, England, Chicago.
PSF: Were you ever thinking about stretching the aesthetic of the label?
SM: Yes, I believe we did eventually stretch the aesthetic. In the early days, most of our releases came in two categories - guitar driven indie rock, and riot-grrrl related punk rock. Later on, we started to do quieter artists like Elliott Smith, Mary Lou lord, and Phranc. We released a few more "experimental" artists on KRS, then eventually started the 5RC label to handle those releases.
PSF: For yourself, what were some of the most satisfying moments in running KRS?
SM: Holding our very first release in my hand the day it arrived in boxes from Bill Smith Custom Records. The rest of the highlights weren't really specific moments so much as just the chance to get to work with so many terrific people and be involved with the release of so much terrific music and spoken word.
PSF: The Riot Grrl movement is closely associated with the label. How do you look back at that genre now? Do you think it had a meaningful impact musically or otherwise?
SM: Love it. Yes, it had a really big impact.
PSF: When did you first become aware of gender inequities in the music scene? Or did you sense they were always there?
SM: To some degree always aware, but reading Jigsaw magazine helped me become more aware of the issues.
PSF: Do you think that's changed for the better nowadays?
SM: I think some things are quite a bit better, and some things haven't changed a bit. I have been repeatedly shocked by how much blatant and overt sexism still exists in communities that ought to know better at this point.
PSF: When you first got contacted about doing the Kleenex/Liliput reissue, did you have any notion of doing something like that before?
SM: Not really, mostly because we had a really intense release schedule and I didn't have time to do the work involved in curating reissues.
PSF: What did you think of the experience of working on the Kleenex reissue? How did you think that it turned out?
SM: It was a great pleasure working on it. Everybody was really nice. I think it turned out great.
PSF: Could you tell the story of the company who wanted to license some of their music but the band refused?
SM: Ad advertising agency offered a $40,000 license for a Kleenex song to appear in a commercial for Hummer. Kleenex declined because those cars are bad for the environment. KRS supported that decision.
(ED NOTE: Also, guitarist Marlene Marder was working for the World Wildlife Federation at the time)
PSF: The next reissue was Essential Logic. Why did you decide that KRS was ready to do another archival reissue?
SM: The Kleenex reissue went well, and Essential Logic was another great band that deserved to be documented in that way.
PSF: For the Logic reissue, how did you find working on that compared to doing the Kleenex reissue?
SM: It was also great. I ended up dealing with Lora Logic more directly that I had dealt with Kleenex, and she turned out to be a really cool and interesting person and kind person.
PSF: For the Delta 5 reissue, I know that we had some headaches dealing with some of the licensing issues. What did you think of the process?
SM: It was a bit frustrating as it was happening, but it turned out fine.
PSF: Were you interested in doing other archival reissues after that? If so, what did you have in mind?
SM: We had some discussions about doing several others that didn't pan out, including Dolly Mixture, The Slits, and Huggy Bear.
PSF: How would you hope that people would look back at your work with KRS?
SM: I wish people saw me as a guy who worked hard to help artists he thought were important, and who did business with those artists in a fair and ethical manner. I never tried very hard to be "successful" other than to successfully keep the label going so we could keep putting out great records.
PSF: I know that you worked with Nonesuch and Rykodisc for a while. What did you learn from those experiences?
SM: Changing a label's image takes time and a clear strategy. Layers of bureaucracy makes it much harder to sign the bands you think you can help.
PSF: Why did you decide to stop doing label work? Under what circumstances would you consider doing it again?
SM: I quit doing label work to go into artist management. A couple years after that, I quit the music business to go back to school to study religion. I can't really see going back to the music business for any other reason than as part of a ministry. Maybe a gospel/spiritual music label?
PSF: What prompted you to leave the music business and go into the ministry?
SM: I can only answer this using religious language. When I was 23, I heard a call to put out records. Now I'm answering a call to the ministry.
PSF: What kind of lessons have you learned from your music years that you think you'll carry over to your religion studies?
SM: Lots of things, but especially the power of Community.
PSF: What led you to work on the Portland Folk Festival? How do you see it as a continuation of what you've done before?
SM: Folk music is the original punk rock. Woody Guthrie is a real hero of mine. Community is important, and folk music brings people together. Folk music is affiliated with values I hold dear. Sustainable food practices, worker's rights, etc. I ended up founding the Portland Folk Festival with two friends because we all thought it was a great idea.
PSF: What kind of work did you do with Shotclock Management?
SM: I was the manager for Thao Nguyen, Anais Mitchell, Portland Cello Project, Catherine Feeny, Lou Barlow, Bitch, Nomo, Stew, and others.
PSF: Just to clarify, you don't work with Shotclock anymore?
SM: Never say never, I might work there again someday I suppose. But yes, I do not work with Shotclock anymore. Thao and Anais and Portland Cello Project and Bitch all happily have different management situations now.
PSF: Could you talk about the charity work that you do now?
SM: I do a lot of stuff through my church, the Unitarian Universalist Church of Vancouver, and I do some stuff at another church, First Congregational Church, United Church of Christ. I'm currently attending Meadville Lombard Theological School. I hope to become a Unitarian Universalist minister.
PSF: Do you think your music work led you to your religious work in any way or do you see these as two entirely separate paths?
SM: Yes, related. Definitely not separate paths. Music is spiritual. Spirituality is musical. And the power of people coming together in community to change the world is really what it's all about, right?
SLIM MOON'S TOP 10 OVERLOOKED KRS RELEASES
Frumpies Frumpie One Piece
The Frumpies was a singles band. This CD is the collection of all their singles. A terrific garage band that I put in the same category with the Gories, the Sonics, and Thee Headcoats, featuring members of Bikini Kill and Bratmobile. Frumpies forever.
Kathy Acker Redoing Childhood
Posthumous release by one of America's most important writers.
Matrimony Kitty Finger
Incredible album from a short-lived garage band sometimes referred to as an Australian "proto-Riot Grrrl" band.
Long Hind Legs Long Hind Legs
Dreamy electropop featuring Vern Rumsey of Unwound. This shoulda been a top 40 hit.
Edwin Torres Holy Kid
Nuyorican poet twists words in knots, leaving me breathless.
Jean Smith Jean Smith
Jean Smith is my hero, an art saint through and through. This solo album is a terrific complement to her wonderful novels.
Mike "Sport" Murphy Willoughby
This album has four of my favorite singer-songwriter type songs ever written and recorded.
Juliana Luecking Dream Cum Go Down
Juliana pushes the boundaries of what a "spoken word" album can be with this pastiche of field interviews about sex.
Katie Eastburn Starter Set DVD
The most visually beautiful and challenging thing KRS ever put out. Dance and movement video curated by Katie Eastburn.
Lungleg Hello Sir
Sister band to the Yummy Fur. This collects their first two singles. So good.
PSF: What was your interest in music before you had any work within the industry itself?
PS: I have been obsessed with music since I was 11 years old. The first album I bought with my own money was J. Geils Band Freeze Frame in 1982. I started playing electric bass at age 14, but couldn't find anyone in high school to play with. Regardless, music meant everything to me and I started seeing bands live in 1984- my first show was the Go-Gos and INXS at Radio City Music Hall. I began taking drum lessons in college and was pretty much never not in a band after that for the next 10 years. I was in a band called the Shepherd Kings in college, and after graduation, we moved to Minneapolis, MN to "make it" in the big city. When that didn't happen, I moved home to NYC and immediately founded an all-girl band, Trixie Belden, which lasted 4 years. My guitarist from Trixie Belden is the guitarist and singer of the long-standing NYC band Palomar, a band that rose from the ashes of Trixie Belden. My next band, The Hissyfits, is the one where we actually made albums and toured the country, and where I started to get an understanding of the music business. In 2001, I quit the Hissyfits and started managing a New York pop-punk band called Dirt Bike Annie. In 2004, I founded my own management company, Shotclock Management, and in 2005, I started managing the Gossip. I believed that the UK was an important market for them, and they hadn't been there since 2002, so we spent 2006 going to the UK 12 times in 14 months, and in 2007 they went gold in the UK.
PSF: What were your impressions of KRS and its roster before you started working there?
PS: I was a huge Sleater-Kinney fan and I always thought KRS was a super cool label. My riot-grrl cover band in college, Socket Wench, covered Bikini Kill and Bratmobile songs amongst others. I also thought the name "Slim Moon" was too good to be true and was probably made up.
PSF: What background did you have with label work before KRS?
PS: I never worked at a label, but I had been on a couple of record labels with my band The Hissyfits so I had a rudimentary idea of what labels did.
PSF: What made you become interested in working at KRS?
PS: I was doing my dissertation research and living with Slim in Olympia and one of his employees went on tour, so they needed someone to do publicity for 5 or 6 weeks. He asked me to do it and after that, I just started doing jobs as needed -- I ended up doing almost every job at the company at one point or another. In the meantime, I got my PhD. from Columbia University in NYC and got a postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Washington, but Slim asked me to take over the company in 2006, right when the Gossip was blowing up, and I made the decision to get out of academia and fully into the music business. I was originally supposed to take over the company and "wind it down," but there were 27 releases on the slate when I took over and once I'd released those, I was having so much fun, and had found some new bands I wanted to work with, that I just kept on putting out records. And here we are today!
PSF: You said "(I) had found some new bands I wanted to work with" when you took over KRS. Which ones in particular were these?
PS: Horse Feathers and Thao in particular.
PSF: What's been your criteria for selecting bands for KRS? Has that changed since you started running the label?
PS: My criteria has always been the same: a band needs great songs, a great work ethic, a desire to be a career act, and "something special" that isn't the same in every case. Those criteria have never changed, but of course the way people play rock music has changed, as trends come and go, so you're not always looking at people who play the same TYPE of music. This does make it harder as personal taste has something to do with it, and when there's a particular trend that I'm not that interested in, it makes the pool of bands I have to choose from a little smaller.
PSF: What do you think the future of KRS will be? What would you like to see happen there over the next few years?
PS: I think everyone who runs a label right now is just doing his or her best to keep the doors open. The music business is changing so rapidly that you really need to be agile to make the necessary changes to keep up with it. That is one place where indie labels have an edge over majors- we tend to be smaller and more able to make quick changes. And when I say 'changes,' I mean changes in overhead, in where our resources are going, in our business models, etc. I'd say I'd like to just be able to keep putting out records over the next few years. I'm hoping for that.
PSF: Do you think that your vision of KRS is in synch with or somewhat different than what Slim had in mind for it?
PS: Well, we are different people, and also the label has lasted 22 years now, so I think the vision Slim initially had for the label changed over 15 years, and the vision I started with has gotten modified as well through experience. But we both believe in putting out great music, and we believe in social justice, and we're both feminists, so we do have a lot of similarities.
PSF: Nowadays, do you see any other labels out there as kindred spirits?
PS: I feel a lot of kinship with everyone who does my job, and I'm lucky enough to have several friends who also run indie labels. I think that regardless of genre, we're all facing the same challenges right now, and it's inspiring to see other people succeed and see how they approach the same problems and opportunities.
PSF: In the age of downloads and streaming, how do you think that KRS will continue to thrive?
PS: We're lucky enough to have a really broad and deep catalogue, which seems to help with streaming services like Spotify, where you're just going to make more money by having more songs out there for people to stream. It always seems like physical sales are going to drop to nothing, but then that hasn't actually happened yet. So I guess we'll just keep doing what we're doing and keep a close eye on what's happening in the industry so that we can make changes when necessary. Signing a band that blows up wouldn't hurt either, of course!
PSF: When you decide to sign on a new band with KRS, what kind of advice or guidance do you like to give them? Ideally, you want them to follow their own vision but how do you guide them so that they can be successful on their own terms?
PS: I always try and make sure that a band understands the job that they are signing up for. This is one reason why I try not to sign bands that have never toured, or who are just really popular in one city. It's really important that bands understand what the job of being a band actually entails, because everyone has the same idea of what being a rockstar is like, and the two are not the same! I also try to avoid bands who seem to think that getting signed is the FINAL thing they need to do- it's actually one of the FIRST things they need to do, and there's a whole bunch of work that comes after that. I don't interfere with bands' artistic visions, because I signed them, because I love them and I trust them to make the music they want to make, but there are a lot of aspects of the business of being a band that I can help with. It's important to find artists who are open to learning about the business because those are the ones who are going to have long-term careers, and I'm not in the business of one-hit wonders.
Also see the Kill Rock Stars website
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