This interview originally appeared at North Country Primitive on 11th March 2016
Josh Rosenthal’s Tompkins Square Records, which has recently celebrated its tenth anniversary, has become somewhat of an institution for music fans, thanks to Josh’s consistent championing of American Primitive guitar, the old, weird America and various other must-hear obscurities he has managed to pluck from the ether. Not content with running one of the best record labels on the planet, he is now also an author, and about to go out on tour with various musicians from the wider Tompkins Square family in support of his new book, The Record Store of the Mind. We caught up with him this week and pestered him with a heap of questions - our thanks to Josh for putting up with us.
Congratulations on The Record Store of the Mind – it’s an absorbing and entertaining read. Has this project had a long gestation period? How easily does writing come to you - and is it something you enjoy doing? It certainly comes across that way…
Thanks for the kind words. I don’t consider myself a writer. I started the book in November 2014 and finished in May 2015, but a lot of that time was spent procrastinating, working on my label, or getting really down on myself for not writing. I could have done more with the prose, made it more artful. I can’t spin yarn like, say, your average MOJO writer. So I decided early on to just tell it straight, just tell the story and don’t labour over the prose.
I particularly like how you mix up memoir, pen portraits of musicians, and snippets of crate digger philosophy… was the book crafted and planned this way or was there an element of improvisation - seeing where your muse took you? And is there more writing to follow?
If I write another book, it’d have to be based around a big idea or theme. This one is a collection of essays. As I went on, I realised that there’s this undercurrent of sadness and tragedy in most of the stories, so a theme emerged. I guess it’s one reflective of life, just in a musical context. We all have things we leave undone, or we feel under-appreciated at times. I wasn’t even planning to write about myself, but then some folks close to me convinced me I should do. So you read about six chapters and then you find out something about the guy who’s writing this stuff. I intersperse a few chapters about my personal experience, from growing up on Long Island in love with Lou Reed to college radio days to SONY and all the fun things I did there. Threading those chapters in gives the book a lift, I think.
Tell us a bit about the planned book tour. You’ve got a mighty fine selection of musicians joining you on the various dates. I imagine there was no shortage of takers?
I’m really grateful to them all. I selected some folks in each city I’m visiting, and they all are in the Tompkins Square orbit. Folks will see the early guitar heroes like Peter Walker, Max Ochs and Harry Taussig and the youngsters like Diane Cluck, one of my favourite vocalists. You can’t read for more than ten minutes. People zone out. So having music rounds out the event and ties back to the whole purpose of my book and my label.
It’s clear from the book that you haven’t lost your excitement about uncovering hidden musical gems. Any recent discoveries that have particularly floated your boat?
I’m working with a couple of guys on a compilation of private press guitar stuff. They are finding the most fascinating and beautiful stuff from decades ago. I’ve never heard of any of the players. Most are still alive, and they are sending me fantastic photos and stories. I have been listening to a lot of new music now that Spotify is connected to my stereo system! I love Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith. Her new one is out soon. I like Charlie Hilton’s new album too.
Any thoughts on the vinyl resurgence and the re-emergence of the humble cassette tape?
Vinyl has kept a lot of indie record stores in business, which is a great development. As a label, it’s a low margin product, so that’s kind of frustrating. If you’re not selling it hand over fist, it can be a liability. The model seems to be - make your physical goods, sell them as best you can within the first four months, and then let the digital sphere be your warehouse. I never bought cassettes and have no affinity for them, or the machines that play them.
Turning to Tompkins Square, did your years working for major labels serve as a good apprenticeship for running your own label? Did you have a clear idea of what you wanted the label to look like from the outset or has the direction its taken developed organically over time?
Working for PolyGram as a teenager and then SONY for 15 years straight out of college was formative. I like taking on projects. My interests and the marketplace dictate what I do. I’ve always felt like the label does me instead of vice versa. For example, the idea of releasing two, three or four disc sets of a particular genre served me well, but now it feels like a very 2009 concept. It doesn’t interest me much, and the commercial viability of that has diminished because it seems the appetite for those types of products has diminished.
Working in relatively niche genres in the current music industry climate can’t be the safest or easiest way to make a living. Is there a sense sometimes that you’re flying by the seat of your pants?
We’re becoming a two-format industry - streaming and vinyl. The CD is really waning and so is the mp3. The streaming pie is growing but it’s modest in terms of income when you compare it to CD or download margins at their height. I don’t really pay much mind to the macro aspects of the business. I just try to release quality, sell a few thousand, move on to the next thing, while continuing to goose the catalogue. The business is becoming very much about getting on the right playlists that will drive hundreds of thousands of streams. It’s the new payola.
American Primitive and fingerstyle guitar makes up a significant percentage of Tompkins Square releases, going right back to the early days of the label – indeed, it could be said that you’ve played a pivotal role in reviving interest in the genre. Is this a style that is particularly close to your heart? What draws you to it?
Interest in guitar flows in and out of favour. There are only a small number of guitarists I actually like, and a much longer list of guitarists I’m told I’m SUPPOSED to like. Most leave me cold, even if they’re technically great. But I respect anyone who plays their instrument well. Certain players like Harry Taussig or Michael Chapman really reach me - their music really gets under my skin and touches my soul. It’s hard to describe, but it has something to do with melody and repetition. It’s not about technique per se. You can hear someone’s world view through their guitar, and you can hear it reflecting your own.
You’ve reintroduced some wonderful lost American Primitive classics to the world – by Mark Fosson, Peter Walker, Don Bikoff, Richard Crandell and so on. How have these reissues come about? Painstaking research? Happy cratedigging accidents? Serendipity? Are there any reissues you’re particularly proud of?
They came about in all different ways. A lot of the time I can’t remember how I got turned on to something, or started working with someone. Peter was among the first musicians I hunted down in 2005, and we made his first album in 40 years. I think Mark’s cousin told me about his lost tapes in the attic. Bikoff came to me via WFMU. Crandell - I’m not sure, but In The Flower of My Youth is one of the greatest solo guitar albums of all time. I’m proud of all of them !
Are there any ‘ones that got away’ that you particularly regret, where red tape, copyright issues, cost or recalcitrant musicians have prevented a reissue from happening? Any further American Primitive reissues in the pipeline you can tell us about – the supply of lost albums doesn’t seem to be showing signs of drying up yet…
Like I said, this new compilation I’m working on is going to be a revelation. So much fantastic, unknown, unheard private press guitar music. It makes you realise how deep the well actually is. There are things I’ve wanted to do that didn’t materialise. Usually these are due to uncooperative copyright owners or murky provenance in a recording that makes it unfit to release legitimately.
You’ve also released a slew of albums by contemporary guitarists working in the fingerstyle tradition. How do you decide who gets the Tompkins Square treatment? What are you looking for in a guitarist when you’re deciding who to work with? And what’s the score with the zillions of James Blackshaw albums? Has he got dirt on you!?
It takes a lot for me to sign someone. I feel good about the people I’ve signed, and most of them have actual careers, insofar as they can go play in any US or European city and people will pay to see them. I hope I’ve had a hand in that. I did six albums with Blackshaw because he’s one of the most gifted composers and guitarist of the past 50 years. He should be scoring films. He really should be a superstar by now, like Philip Glass. I think he’s not had the right breaks or the best representation to develop his career to its full potential. But he’s still young.
Imaginational Anthems has been a flagship series for Tompkins Square from the beginning. The focus of the series seems to have shifted a couple of times – from the original mixture of old and new recordings to themed releases to releases with outside curators. Has this variation in approach been a means by which to mix it up and keep the series fresh? Are you surprised at the iconic status the series has achieved?
I don’t know about iconic. I think the comps have served their purpose, bringing unknowns into the light via the first three volumes and introducing some young players along the way. Cian Nugent was on the cover of volume 3 as a teenager. Daniel Bachman came to my attention on volume 5, which Sam Moss compiled. Sam Moss’ new album is featured on NPR just today! Steve Gunn was relatively unknown when he appeared on volume 5. There are lots more examples of that. I like handing over the curation to someone who can turn me on to new players, just as a listener gets turned on. It’s been an amazing experience learning about these players. And I’m going to see a number of IA alums play on my book tour : Mike Vallera, Sam Moss, Wes Tirey - and I invited Jordan Norton out in Portland. Never met him or saw him play. He was fantastic. Plays this Frippy stuff.
What’s next for you and Tompkins Square?
I signed a young lady from Ireland. Very excited about her debut album, due in June. I’m reissuing two early 70’s records by Bob Brown, both produced by Richie Havens. Beautiful records, barely anyone has heard them.
Check out the Tompkins Square Bandcamp page here