Shrimper Records turns 25

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The underground label responsible for early Mountain Goats, Sebadoh, Woods, and more.

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Dennis Callaci | February 10, 2015

The only thing more useless than a record label is one of them U2 iPods, stuck in the amber of other fossils of things that served a purpose once. As to how successful they ever really were at whatever their function was supposed to be, is a question that seldom gets asked.

I started Shrimper in Upland California as a tape label 25 years ago because I was in a band that was never going to put out any kind of music otherwise. My brother and I, along with a few friends, had a cable access TV show at the time as well as a zine, and said band. So a record label seemed like just another in a list of organs we would need to create if we were going to continue to write, draw, sing, film, etc. I imagine that in Lawndale the same thing had happened some 12 years prior to this, and that this kind of thing happened all the time all over the world.  Shit, there is some incredible Sanskrit skronk that you may have not heard yet.

There was no Alan Lomax going to swing by in his limousine with nickels for any of us, no Clive Davis that we would have to hand job to turtle cooing death for some kind of indentured servitude that would land us in the cut-out bins of a then faltering Gemco, nor an equally decimated Licorice Pizza. I had access to boxes of Soul II Soul tapes, Gaither Family hour of power cassettes that could be mine for a quarter a pop.  Affix some tape over the tabs of A&B, dub over them with just-written songs by your new favorite local bands, sell them cheap.  A wealth that ate up most of my life from the ages of 20 to 23, and it was mine for a long while after that too.

I was fortunate to be surrounded at that time by some of the most talented, unique, or at least idiosyncratic bands and artists that had welled up en mass from the non-famous Inland Empire scene. Sure, The We Five from Pomona, Kaleidoscope from the Claremont area, The Stepmothers from, well, I don’t know exactly which city, but I recall their infamous SM logo being spray painted all over Upland Junior High School when I was in the 7th grade in 1981. These bands all had their place in the non-existent Daily Report Rock Music liquidation department, but none had achieved fame.

The only thing more useless than a record label is one of them U2 iPods, stuck in the amber of other fossils of things that served a purpose once.

Seemed like a good MO at the time and plays even better today.  I know because I heard it overhead by some gaunt model that has a CD single out, and the-A side, which is the only side I can seem to get my laser to read, is called “90s Music”. I don’t think she is referencing the first few releases on my label by WCKR SPGT or Franklin Bruno or The Mountain Goats or Sentridoh or John Harrelson. But I think what she is hitting upon is her misplaced nostalgia for a time that passed before she popped out of her Mom or was pulled out while poppa texted more trite textbook theory about evolution not existing in his family tree as she slid out, limbs not akimbo.

It strikes me that she is equally nostalgic for formats, not radio formats, but actual platforms like the cassette, or the LP or the 8 track, but not the MP3 (which I used to look at like a godsend, thinking that all those ghostly carcasses were not taking up valuable landfill properties with their disposable faux Nicholas Cage beats, but, like duh, the Mercury in them machines that captured them chewable bite-size shit Skittles is leaking into the soil). To her, I would say, this fetish over formats is like adults collecting baseball cards.  You are totally missing the game.

The timeline of Shrimper runs parallel to whatever format was easiest acquired, handed off, still true today. (But I never got into the digital-only realm. I’d rather smoke signal the digits you may need to get you whatever information you are after. Check me online at www.blah.blah.blah.com.com.com.)

The old adages about art and commerce not being able to sit together are old and retold because that adage turns out to be truer than almost any other. (That I have ever heard, anyway). There is no office for poor Shrimper records, there is no website, there is no hashtag-instagram-fookiecookie (the next rage). I would not want to be responsible for littering your phone buddy (best buddy, nearest buddy, all knowing pal) with ugly pictures of me in a boardroom. It would all start out like a joke, but in time become what all of these things become, a nascent peak at the drudgery so many interesting things slowly become. My peers have lectured me about all of my missteps and missed opportunities. You could have signed Bush or Rex Smith or The Decemberists Bruce Pavitt or Mac, they might tell me. I could also be working at Taco Bell or Walmart or some skunk romance revival house. Only Gerard Cosloy seems to get me as we discuss his Borgbetomagus or Iceage whimsy while kindly tapping my Milwaukee Brewers skull cap in a show of solidarity.

I never got into the digital-only realm. I’d rather smoke signal the digits you may need to get you whatever information you are after.

I had a lot of time early on, and releases came quick and plentiful. Now I have less time and, as touched upon earlier, am not quite sure what the point of a record label nor a candy wrapper is, so the pace has slowed.  To four or five releases a year that I meditate and pray upon. That I worship and tend to, even though littered with my flippant half-wit slobber drizzle, these things are to me one of the most valuable parts of my being. Of late, records by John Davis, Amps for Christ, The Woods, The Babies, Simon Joyner. The year ahead, the debut recording by 57-year-old high-desert poet Liz Gilbert, the debut full length by Sloppy Heads, new releases by WCKR SPGT, Refrigerator, Joy and more… See, when phrased like that, even I who have seen so little in this world has to wince. A label: that is something every thinking woman or man tries to avoid.

To be clear, the music that has been my life mission to put out on Shrimper is what I will take with me in all four cavities of my heart when my body goes up in flames. I will house all of it securely, as a mission, to show my children that you don’t have to sell out, bow down, or run a business, or run a business or run a business. I’ll be the 70-year-old with an erection in twenty-five years, long after whats his names’ titties are limp pancakes serving up flan. In space, no one wears underwear. Here on earth, I spray paint my sunglasses with white out so I don’t have to see anyone’s filthy undies. Move on along Decemberists, move on along.

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