The Huntington Woods neighborhood couldn’t be any less rock ’n’ roll: Squirrels scuttle beneath bird feeders and wind chimes, grape vines twirl up trellises, yard care trucks exhale hazy fumes over numerically aligned, garden-rich yards. There are dogwoods, morning glories and spangled fritillaries. Spring has sprung.
It’s not a place one might suspect to find one of the world’s pre-eminent nasty-loud-fuck stoner-rock record labels. In fact, you couldn’t construct a better juxtaposition.
Meet Scott Hamilton, tireless owner of 8-year-old indie label Small Stone Records, a full-on one-man-label show whose “corporate headquarters” sits in a basement recess of a manicured home in the aforementioned neighborhood.
The bands Hamilton embraces are anything but flora in spring — think Skynyrd and Sabbath riffs over biker squall, think chemical containments and the fabulous desolation of urban landfills. Think euphoriant ganja.
The clear-eyed 35-year-old Hamilton is weed-free. He and his wife, Taya, have three young kids to think about. His serial swilling of Mountain Dew is no doubt key in helping the husband and father juggle baby care with the record label and long days as a production assistant at Clear Channel shows. Taya works three days a week as a paralegal. Child-rearing chores are split between the two.
“I need to find the butt cream,” Hamilton warns. “Step away, it’s not going to be pleasant.” Seems 13-month-old Mackenzie needs a diaper change.
Small Stone is home to a cast of mostly unsung stoner-riff merchants; bands that are thick and jagged and brutally precise; from Toledo’s Five Horse Johnson and LA’s Fireball Ministry to Sweden’s Greenleaf and Argentina’s Los Natas.
Small Stone has released wondrous bong-damaged comps as well, such as Sucking in the ’70s — featuring the Men of Porn doing a wickedly stellar rendition of Neil Young’s “Out on the Weekend” — and a tribute to Aerosmith, all-time suburban teenage wasteland fist-hoisters and a personal fave of Hamilton’s.
Between diaper changing and negotiating European tour dates and distribution deals for his bands — a roster that counts, at this point, 15 — he’s just finished overseeing records by Halfway to Gone and Five Horse Johnson. His phones are constantly ringing. The label alone is more than a full-time operation.
Small Stone’s basement cubbyhole office is peppered with ’70s nods to Hamilton’s childhood. There are lava lamps, a framed poster of Iggy and walls of CDs that run the AC/DC to Can gamut. There’s a Hiwatt and a Marshall stack, a couple Les Pauls, one of which sports a Joe Perry signature. It’s a dream bedroom for a kid who purchased Toys in the Attic the year it came out.
“I wish I was this age in the ’70s,” he says, his head framed perfectly by two Kiss dolls sitting on a shelf. “You know, when indie kids started buying electronica, I was dabbling in burnout rock. That’s where it started.”
But the guy is not living in the past. And Small Stone’s rep as a sludge-rock label to be reckoned with is growing by leaps and bounds.
Bands from around the globe consider Small Stone a desirable label, and his acts are getting gushy global press. And Hamilton, as label chief, A&R director, promotions head and accounting supervisor in one, works his ass off.
His label operation is simple; no assistant or full-time employee (“I need one, but I don’t trust anybody with my shit”), and he gets the records done on the cheap; five grand covers recording costs, magazine print ads, manufacturing and distributing. Tour support for each band consists of a hundred promo copies of the band’s latest record to sell; the band keeps the profits. Not much, but everything helps.
“I can’t afford to not have a band in a van on the road,” he explains. “That’s half the reason I don’t sign Detroit bands, with the exception of Novadriver — they’re too lazy.”
Despite his hard-won, nearly skeptical approach to the music biz, his plan is methodical and solid. “I sign bands from other cities to build a network. Bands get places to crash, venues to play.”
His touring bands share an agent that gets decent guarantees, thus enabling them to tour. Taking the music to the kids is the essential formula for breaking an indie band, and there are, as of this writing, six Small Stone bands on the road.
The label needs each band to move 2,000-3,000 copies to break even. These days, numbers such as those on an indie label is considered a success. Five Horse Johnson is Small Stone’s biggest seller; their last record, The No. 6 Dance, sold nearly 10,000 copies, not including merch table sales at shows.
“It’s like a weird little dinky family,” says Five Horse Johnson front man Eric Oblander. The singer says Hamilton’s straightforward honesty breeds loyalty all the way around. Hence, piecemeal growth for both bands and label.
“It’s not like, ‘Have your manager or lawyer call mine,’ or anything like that,” continues Oblander. “And he takes no shit from anybody, doesn’t care what anybody thinks. Scott kind of points us in the right direction and we go.
“That’s what’s getting Scott the attention, ’cause he has the balls to go out and sign bands,” he continues. “These bands he loves regardless of what anybody says. We’ve seen forward progress from a guy who basically operates out of his basement. I can call him about anything and not have to deal with a secretary or some shit.”
It’s the little shit for an indie that goes lengths. Song licensing proves itself multipurpose; Five Horse Johnson netted a tidy sum when GM appropriated one of the band’s songs for a Silverado ad. A very corporate way to get a band heard, certainly, and the band financed three European tours with the money. The same Five Horse song will be used in Playstation’s “Triple Play 2004,” which comes out soon. Hamilton helped secure both deals.
If the label is all about the forward movement, Hamilton is still cautious not to put so much stock in whether kids will buy Small Stone’s brand of auditory cataclysm.
“The kids these days won’t rebel,” he says. “‘We got video games, my dad gave me a hundred bucks, I got a bag of weed. …’ What’s there to rebel against?”
Hamilton once worked as a college radio rep for Polygram records. He did sales and promotion at a local radio station where, he says, part of his job was setting up payola for major record labels. He recognizes graft and speaks with the rich oratorical precision of a veteran of the record business. He knows the game is crawling with creeps and weasels, which is why, as a fan of music, Hamilton started his own label. He did it with a few thousand bucks and a savvy sense of the where’s and how’s.
His first release in 1995, a comp called Detroit Rust City, moved 1,000 copies out the door in the first week. The disc featured a pre-giant Kid Rock tune, “Westside.”
Hamilton says he didn’t press more copies of the disc once Kid Rock got big.
“Why?” he snorts. “This town is full of Kid Rock and Eminem hangers-on, I don’t want any part of that.” So far the label has released 37 CDs and three 7-inchers. Fifteen more will see light of day before year’s end.
If anything should happen with his label, Hamilton says all he wants for himself “is a swimming pool and muscle car.”
“My bands aren’t lookers,” he laughs. “They’re ugly dudes. That shit will never sell. I’m here for the music.” Whatever major-label interest that has come down the pike thus far has been for naught. “At best they all want to cherry-pick off the label. Fuck that,” he says.
Still, Hamilton might sneer — but he wouldn’t balk — should a major step in and offer him a tidy sum for Small Stone.
Hamilton is, so far, a DIY success story — if success is defined by personal happiness. He claims his motivations have little or nothing to do with how much cash he can collect; it’s more about keeping his family fed and getting the kids through college.
Hamilton asks 5-year-old Graham to tell me his favorite band. The child does a little-kid move that involves flailing arms and a bunny hop. Then he hesitates, the pause of an embarrassed child. Moments later he says, slowly, “Fiiive Horrrse Johnnnsun!”Brian Smith is the music editor of Metro Times. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org