Cover Story: Smells Like Team Spirit

Three local Indie labels join forces and find strength in numbers

Sep 15, 2004 at 2:06 pm
Local musicians (L-R) Mike Montgomery, Jerry Dirr, Joe Thompson and Rick McCarty organized the unusual compilation album Organelle.

A fundamental part of being a musician on an independent label is that you have to do the bulk of the work. If you happen to run the label, then it's all on you.

Three local indie labels with similar interests have come up with a way to spread around the workload. The Organelle compilation is a joint release featuring artists from area labels Tiberius Records, Save Your Servant Recordings and State Bird Records (plus a couple of other "allies").

Each label was founded by musicians who initially formed the imprints as a way to release their own records — the members of Thistle created Tiberius, Hilltop Distillery is behind State Bird and Save Your Servant is the work of Theraphosa's membership. Gradually, each of the labels has added other, mostly local acts to its roster.

Not only is expansion a way to add credibility to their labels, but it's also enabled them to expose other area artists to a wider audience. Strength in numbers, as they say.

Organelle is the epitome of that philosophy, fully created and funded by the artists who appear on the disc, down to the artwork and physical recording. They even did pre-sale tickets by hand for their two-day release party this weekend.

Like the organs of the body, each artist served a vital role. Call it their Frankenstein's monster.

On a recent Saturday afternoon, four of the project's principals gathered to discuss the project at Candyland, the new studio in Avondale handcrafted by Tiberius' Mike Montgomery and El Gigante's Jim Turner. Joining Montgomery at the studio — located in the rear of Turner's dog daycare business — is his Tiberius co-founder and bandmate Rick McCarty, State Bird's Joe Thompson and Jerry Dirr from Save Your Servant.

Dirr is credited with coming up with the idea for the compilation, which — in a rare move for a local compilation — features only previously unreleased, new material from each of the artists.

"He gets half the money," McCarty jokes about Dirr's inventor role.

"I thought it was 75 percent," Dirr playfully mutters.

The participants — who have grown to know each other by playing shows together over the years — say Organelle has less to do with promoting their labels and the Greater Cincinnati music scene than with releasing a quality album featuring some of their favorite bands.

"It was just the excitement of getting to work with everybody," Dirr says of the concept. "You start to notice, 'Hey, these guys have their act together, these guys have their act together, why don't we, instead of working separately, work together and pull our resources together?' "

Compilations are a tricky sell, especially if the artists are relatively unknown. But Organelle, while diverse, has a remarkable cohesiveness, thanks to smart track programming.

On the disc, an airy slice of slanted, almost jazzy Indie Pop like The Ralph Jones Band's "The Ride Is the Reason" slides flawlessly into the urgent, smart Punk of Caterpillar Tracks' "Just Here to Visit," and there's still room for Hover's Electronic pulsations, Hilltop Distillery's narcotic experimentalism, The Light Wires' Roots Pop, Cameron Martin Cochran's emotive singer/songwriter fare, The Defrost Star's diverse Rock explosiveness and The Strongest Proof's serpentine dynamics.

The fact that it doesn't sound like a random spin of the radio dial is a testament to the project overseers' vision, good taste and attention to detail. Dirr says he and other members of Theraphosa and Hilltop Distillery gathered in the studio for an all-nighter to chart out the ordering.

"Before we got started that night, that was the one thing that we consciously said, 'We want it to flow,' " he says. "We didn't want it to be one of those comps where the first song starts and then it ends, the second song starts and then it ends ... we wanted to keep it cohesive. We tried to put songs next to each other that made sense dynamically, the way you would for your own full-length record."

"We tried to keep all the songs close together so there's no breaks," Thompson adds. "Some people might even be like, 'Is this still the same song?' We kind of wanted it to be that way. We tried to write the ultimate set list."

McCarty, who says that Tiberius has toyed with the idea of releasing a compilation disc in the past and Thistle has been on many dreadful comps themselves, acknowledges the difficulty of getting people to check out a "various artist" disc.

"Compilations have such a stigma," he says. "It's really hard, on a national level, to distribute a compilation like this. People see it's a compilation and they go, 'Eww.' Especially if there's not one band on there they've heard of."

The project might indeed have some wider appeal due to the lack of scene cheerleading. In the promotional materials, there's only passing mention of the fact that Organelle features all Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky bands, something the participants say was by design.

"We're not saying, 'Hey, it's Cincinnati!' " McCarty says. "It's never emphasizing geography. It's somewhat like (D.C. Indie label) Dischord's approach, where they're focused on their community. We're focused on our community, and it happens to be Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky. It's not like we're trying to champion the region or anything. I think that would be its downfall. When you put the Cincinnati skyline on the cover and call it 'Cincinnati music' ... if I heard 'Cleveland music' or 'Chicago music' (in relation to a comp), I wouldn't be interested in those. In no way would that entice me to buy it."

The role of the independent label shifts frequently these days. With major label consolidation, it's far less likely for an artist to get signed to a conglomerate than it was even 10 years ago, so indies are one of their few options. But with so many labels and the infinite reach of the Internet giving practically any artist the ability to release music, it's sometimes harder than ever to rise above the fray.

As the conversation steers toward where indie labels fit into the big picture today and how an unknown artist gets his or her music heard, everyone insists that it all comes down to the quality of the music.

"That's the most important part," Dirr says. "If you bother people enough, they're going to say, 'OK, maybe they're serious, maybe I'll check this out.' But obviously, if they're going to go check you out after being bothered so many times and the songs aren't there, then no dice."

McCarty insists that the Internet is good for music, because it opens up options. But if you're still unwilling to put a little effort into your musical searches, you'll be left with hearing the things that the big-money machines want you to hear.

"It's making people lazy, that's the bad part," he says of the Web's vastness. "But if you're willing to make any little effort at all, there's tons of great music out there to hear. I can't stand when people say, 'Oh, there's nothing good out there.' You're just fucking lazy, because there's tons of great music out there, you just have to find it. 'Well, I'm not hearing any of it.' Well, sorry that nobody's sticking it up your ass. Find another outlet."

Making good music is something each of the Organelle creators seems consumed with. The compilation itself is a testament to the D.I.Y. work ethic and also to the dedication each artist has to his craft. Dirr says the title was meant to describe the huge role music plays in their lives.

"Music is so important to us that you could almost say it's vital to our existence," he says. "(The album title) is about taking a step back and having respect for that and making sure that you don't lose that part of yourself that is so important and that you don't get caught up with all of the bullshit. The important thing is the music, the feeling it gives you and where you're able to go with that."

ORGANELLE gets a two-day CD release party at Radio Down Friday and Saturday. See for show details or to buy a CD. Tickets for the release show are available at Shake It Records in Northside, the disc's exclusive local retailer.