For a place with an economy in the toilet, Detroit boasts more local record labels than your average American city, with many of them approaching what could be described as "thriving." And two interesting ones Ponk Media and Elevation Records have just recently made an appearance.
It's one thing to have a taste for the strange. It is another thing altogether to have a knack for finding the truly bizarre among the nominally strange. Enter Ponk Media (ponkmedia.com), a new label headed by the recently transplanted (from Cleveland, no less) Mark Robinson. And talk about auspicious debuts! Ponk's first two releases are a big band record from the warbling, ukulele-toting gentlest-of-gentlemen, Tiny Tim, and a nearly laid-back (?!) album from the lord of decadence, Mr. GG Allin. And to tie things together, Allin's album even contains a spoken-word recommendation from Mr. Tim himself! Huh?
Although these two titans of strange are now dead, the aforementioned records were, in fact, originally recorded by Robinson and mastered by in-house producer/sound guru, Mark Kramer, aka Kramer (he of Shimmy Disc fame).
Wait a minute! Back up ... GG Allin made a country record?
"Yeah, one thing led to another," Robinson says, "and next thing you know, we had a standup bass, piano, accordion ... But then GG totally freaked out and it took me a 12-pack of beer to get him to calm down. But in the end, he loved it."
If you're familiar with GG Allin's records, you're in for a surprise. This one's, um, different. On Carnival of Excess, Allin actually sounds like a human being, not just a hoarse, howling, self-mutilating scat machine. And according to Robinson, GG really knew how to work it in the studio.
"I want to show people that, yeah, he was a monster," clarifies Robinson. "All the stories you've read were true ... but at the same time, people don't know that GG was a smart dude. I spent hours talking to the guy – philosophy, whatever. He knew his shit. He knew his way around a studio, too. He knew what he wanted, knew where to double-track his vocals ... He was actually pretty cool. And I think it's important that people do know there was another side of that guy, not just the asshole."
And when one is talking about Allin, that above description could be taken literally.
Robinson and Kramer's philosophy for the label is not unlike the model Rick Rubin had for his classic American recordings with Johnny Cash: Keep it simple. And do what the artist wants to do.
And back in 1995, Tiny Tim wanted to make a big band tribute album to the "Romeo of Radio," tragic 1930s Italian crooner Russ Columbo.
"Did we really need another Tiny Tim ukulele record, with him doing covers of Peaches & Herb songs?" Robinson asks rhetorically. "No, we didn't. So we stumbled upon the idea of making a big band record with Tiny Tim, live on a soundstage. And it was important to do it live, to preserve the integrity of the recording, which was cool because Tiny was one of the most wonderful people I've ever met in my life."
Robinson has plans to work with local Detroit artists as well, but he gets particularly fired up when talking about the sort of fringe artists spotlighted on these first two releases.
"I'd like to do something with Wild Man Fischer," he says. "But last I heard, he's stuck in some nuthouse in California. I don't think he could be coached out of retirement, so at this point, I think it'd be impossible. I just don't think his mental health is all there. Now he's old and bitter and pissed. But those are exactly the kinda guys I like to find. That's the kind of direction I want the label to take. Just not the same shit. That's what I'm striving for with Ponk."
Pro hockey player meets aspiring record mogul: Former Detroit Red Wing/current Toronto Maple Leaf player Boyd Devereaux met former Dirtbombs drummer and Third Gear label head (and local Reprise/Warner Bros. Records rep) Joe Greenwald a couple of years ago when they kept running into each other at local shows. They bonded over their love of the heavy sludge-and-riffage that's found mostly underground these days, and soon an idea was sparked: Combine Boyd's NHL capital with the best of Greenwald's industry connections to start a label and put out records by their favorite bands. And thus Elevation Records was born.
The first time I called Greenwald, he sounded like shit. Late night boozy rock 'n' roll excess? The decadence of an underground metal label head? Nope. Pneumonia. So, I gave the dude a chance to rest up and a few days later, I was happy to learn that Greenwald is first and foremost an obsessively enthusiastic music geek. And his fanboy-love of the aesthetic and artifact value of music goes into every facet of Elevation's releases. In fact, each CD is a limited edition EP of 2,000 copies. After they're sold, they will not be reprinted. His enthusiasm is matched by Devereaux. Together, they've logged in many miles, driving to see bands like Sunn O))) and Boris.
"I grew up on metal and morphed into punk rock, then became a hardcore kid," Greenwald says. "So, I've always been attracted to anything that's sort of over the top heavy, loud, abrasive. When I was a kid, I was a collector. I've always had that mentality. I search out limited editions you're instantly more attracted to the ones that are harder to find. And I love the idea of the right people getting it, the people who care about it. And if it truly ends up being bigger than 2,000 copies or whatever, it's available online."
Although Greenwald says he's certainly interested in what's happening around his hometown, Elevation's first two releases the Toronto-based ethereal doom band Nadja and L.A. psyche-popsters Residual Echoes are indicative of the national focus of the Elevation.
"We're trying to run it as a national label based in Detroit," Greenwald says. "I hate the term 'local label.' It's got such a sort of stigma to it. I want to have a national label. But I want to be proud that the label's in Detroit. So, of course I'm always looking at bands in Detroit. But we're also looking all over the world."
Not many people think of hockey players as underground music enthusiasts, but it goes to show that, as one Mr. Chuck Berry once proclaimed, you never can tell.
"Boyd and my musical tastes are pretty similar," Greenwald says, "but we both have to agree. We both bring stuff to the table. We're definitely on the same wavelength, but it's a 50/50 proposition. I'm really glad to have him involved. He gets really excited about things, and I tend to get jaded sometimes. So I have him to get me super-excited about things.
"The aesthetic really is just to focus on bands that Boyd and I love bands that move us. And we want to offer our artists an opportunity to spread out, to make music and create art. We want bands we love doing what they love on our label."Mike Ross is a freelance writer. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org