Photo by Michael Smith
Interview with label co-founders Nan Warshaw and Rob Miller | By John B. Moore
Founded 20 years ago by three like-minded alternative country fans in Chicago, the Bloodshot Records is still run by co-founders Nan Warshaw and Rob Miller. Over the years, the label has put out records by musicians like Ryan Adams, Old 97’s, Neko Case, and many more. To celebrate the two decades since their first release, For a Life of Sin: A Compilation of Insurgent Chicago Country, they are putting out an impressive 38 track album featuring artists like Ted Leo, Chuck Ragan, and Superchunk, digging deep into the catalog and covering songs by Bloodshot bands.
What made you decide to start the label?
RM: Boredom, naiveté, a complete lack of self-awareness for what we might be getting ourselves into. You know, the usual recipe for starting things. We also felt that the underground roots scene in Chicago – which was being categorically ignored by everyone at the time – deserved some sort of documentation. It also seemed like a good way to cadge some free drinks and guest list spots around town.
Did you have a stronger affinity to punk rock or country?
NW: Punk rock was an essential soundtrack to our lives. Rob and I were each college DJs (separate colleges), and played drums in (different) punk rock bands. In the late ‘80s, we watched punk and underground rock become coopted by the major labels. The music industry discovered Chicago through the likes of Smashing Pumpkins, Urge Overkill, and Liz Phair, and then proceeded to sign alt rock knockoff bands. I had been DJing in Chicago in dive underground rock and punk clubs, and began throwing in the occasional classic country song or rare new hard country song to shake things up. Fans either loved or hated it, which I took to mean I was doing my job right. Going from The Clash, X, and The Cramps to Johnny Cash, Wynn Stewart, Rose Maddox, and Hank Williams felt completely natural. It was only when we began putting together our first release, For a Life of Sin: Insurgent Chicago Country, did we learn about the rich history of traditional country music in Chicago. Commercial country wasn’t on our radar then, and it isn’t anything we’ve ever cared for.
RM: Everything I’ve done in my adult life has been deeply informed by my immersion in the punk scene as a teenager. Not just the music aspect, but the whole Crass edict of “If you don’t like the rules they make, refuse to play their game.” Starting a label without any experience is – by definition – an act of hubris, one that I never could have taken without that outlook. We’ve done it our way, in a way that felt right, rather than with an eye on some sort of “industry standard,” and it has – more or less – worked.
At the time we started, I found the collision of roots and punk to be a natural and exciting one. As Harlan Howard – the great songwriter – said, “It’s three chords and the truth.” That’s what Black Flag was and that’s what Johnny Cash was.
Were there any other independent labels you looked to as inspiration?
NW: We looked toward labels like Touch and Go, Dischord, Twin Tone, Amphetamine Reptile, SST, and Homestead as DIY examples. Plus historic labels such as Stax and Motown as stylistic models. From the get-go, we saw the value of creating a sonic identity. We also knew the only reason to work within the bowels of the music industry was to be able to further the careers of artists we loved.
RM: I’d always loved labels that had a strong identity. The punk and hardcore forebears are obvious examples: Dischord, SST, Touch and Go. But also, all the time I spent rooting around record stores, I got to know Stax, Chess, Sun, Fortune, etc. Having Bloodshot be like that might not have been a specifically engineered decision, but I think it was a natural extension of our upbringings in music.
What was the hardest lesson to learn from starting and running the label?
RM: We are still learning them. Be it technology, personalities, or the vagaries of popular culture, new and oddly shaped hurdles are always being thrown in front of us. We remain – in our hearts – dedicated music fans, not business people or industry hacks. It’s always surprising – though it shouldn’t be at this point – when people you work with in some capacity behave in ways that are… Hmm… Disappointing… Or when our intentions are called into question.
Was there ever a point when you almost shut the label down?
NW: No. We made a point of resisting the boom and bust mentality. When Ryan Adams’s Heartbreaker album took off, we didn’t move to a fancy office building and hire a receptionist. Instead, we hired indie publicists and promoters to work specific releases.
RM: Believe me, many have been the days when I wanted to walk to the corner payphone and call a coupla guys to burn the place down and “make it look like an accident,” but so far, I’ve gotten distracted on the way there. I think there have been a couple of rough patches – say during the crash of 2008 – when in the dark corners of our hearts, we wondered if we could carry on effectively. But I was goddamned if I was gonna go down in a way that wasn’t on our terms.
You have discovered a ton of great bands. Does it bother you when they leave for a larger label?
NW: We understand that some bands’ needs change when they get to a certain level. We don’t want to be in the business of renting tour buses and hiring stylists. For me, it’s not about an artist moving on or up, it’s about whether they choose to do it gracefully or burn bridges. If we can help build an artist’s career to the point where they have the choice to move to a big label, then we’ve done them a service. We generally are happy to make that a smooth and successful transition.
RM: Not at all. I mean, some folks do it more gracefully than others, but ultimately, it’s a success story. The goal is to get an artist you believe in heard by more people. If they feel that going “up the ladder” is the best way to do it, our job is to get out of the way. We can’t buy people tour buses or operate – nor are we willing to operate – in the more unseemly realms of the “industry” that one often has to deal with to get ahead. Besides, a rising tide lifts all boats.
The anniversary record is amazing. How much work was it to line everyone up? Did the artists get to decide which songs they wanted to cover?
RM: The great aspect of this record is the energy and creativity our staff – all giddy music fans – brought to this. Given my tenure here and my personality bent, it’s hard for me to self-promote, look back, or take a compliment, so their enthusiasm was humbling and the array of artists they reached out to showed a bravado that I greatly admire. The breadth of talent, and the speed with which they responded, was really startling. To think that what we’ve done would have resonated with people in so many dark corners of the sonic spectrum is so humbling and exciting.
And the choices the artists made were largely organic, and oftentimes deep catalog and surprising. Some were rather faithful and some were total re-imaginings. What could be more fun than that?
What do you look for when signing new bands?
RM: To paraphrase Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart talking about pornography: “I know it when I see it.” You see it and it grabs you. Simple. Try to not let your brain get in the way. First time I saw Justin Townes Earle – halfway through the second song of his solo set at some weird house party in a suburb north of Chicago – I KNEW I had to work with the guy. When you have that moment of clarity, you figure out a way to make it work. Also, there has to be a willingness to work as hard behind the record as we do – we can’t care more than they do – and to play it like you mean it. I hate it when people look bored playing their own music. If it doesn’t move YOU, why should I give a shit?