In today’s landscape, we are inundated with media. Long gone are the days when one had to go to record stores or rely on recommendations from friends in order to discover new music. Most people, at least under a certain age, don’t appear to purchase music with any regularity. With one click, YouTube and Spotify can access virtually any song that can imaginably be searched for. This is standard practice for millions of people, which has signified the death of record labels and physical media. CDs are out of fashion and records are only manufactured for a niche market. Yet, there is a flame that refuses to be extinguished, primarily in the independent music scene and the labels that support it. Seattle’s Drums & Wires Recordings is a label that maintains support for original artists and also embraces the technology of MP3s and streaming music as an option for those who prefer to ingest their music in that manner.
Three Imaginary Girls has been wholly impressed with Drums & Wires Recordings, a record label and musical collective, run by Michael Wells, who is vastly important in the Seattle music scene as bass player of the phenomenal and highly underrated band, The Walkabouts. He was also Director of Operations at the esteemed Light in the Attic Records for about three years. We recently had the opportunity to catch up with Michael and interview him about the label and its recently re-launched website where he detailed the concept behind the label and why record labels like this are still sorely needed and essential in today’s environment.
Drums & Wires is a collective for a diverse range of mainly Seattle artists. What was the original idea behind the label?
Drums & Wires Recordings is a one-person operation, but the spirit of the label is certainly collective in that independent artists and people such as me who are artists and also have experience in the biz need to work together to do everything we can to get the music to the people. This hybrid music catalog/record label is meant to be a partnership with the artists, so in that sense we’re building on a collective energy where everyone does what they can to grow the artists’ career and the label.
Legacy artists in the Drums & Wires catalog, such as Ottoman Bigwigs, are no longer active as a group but the musicians are still active. James Palmer, the Bigwigs guitarist, along with singer-songwriter Katy Palmer, are the core members of a new band called Long Wasted who are currently finishing work on their debut album that I’m really excited about. I’m talking with the band about how I can partner with them to release the album on the label, by doing things that I can do in my role as a label that aren’t necessarily in the band’s wheelhouse.
By including in the catalog groups that James and Katy have been a part of over the years, The Bolos, Dodi, The Lawnmowers and the Bigwigs, we’re creating a through-line, a narrative that puts all of this great music into a context. There’s a rich vein of music that was created by a community of musicians centered in and around Belltown in the ‘90s – sharing bandmates, recordists, managers, friendships, playing shows together at Sit & Spin, the Crocodile, the Speakeasy, The Two Bells and even the Vogue, and rehearsing in the mysterious and dank basement of The Rendezvous with who-knows-what dripping from the pipes above hour heads! An important part of why I started the label was to help tell the story of these Belltown bands, and hopefully introduce the still quite vital music of that scene to some new ears. But I’ve never intended the label to be solely nostalgic. The inspiration for the label has been, since its inception, to be a catalyst for current and future musical projects. In addition to the upcoming Long Wasted album, artists such as Greg Dember and Loose Wing have joined the catalog and my hope is that the label, not just the catalog, can be a part of the discussion when these folks start to plan their next album.
Drums and Wires was initially born in 2010. Tell me a little bit about the original concept and how it has evolved with the recent re-launch? Has the label been active for the entire nine-year span?
Drums & Wires began as an artist management entity that I started with the purpose of supporting The Walkabouts, a band I’ve been a longtime member of, when we recorded and toured for our last studio album Travels in the Dustland in 2010. After the tours were wrapped up for the that album and the band’s follow up live album Berlin, I began consulting for small labels and met the guys in one of the Seattle’s best kept musical secrets of a few years back, country-rockers Davidson Hart Kingsbery. I took up managing DHK for about a year before they disbanded, and then I went to work for Light In the Attic Records.
Needless to say, record labels have always been involved in artist’s careers, often handling their publishing, matching them up with songwriters and producers and of course recording budgets and promotion. Nowadays, because certain barriers to entry have been lowered for artists and they’re able to record and self-distribute their own music at least digitally, especially the indie labels are becoming more like business partners and less like the “bosses,” and in this context they now handle a lot of the same things traditionally handled by managers. So, it’s a fairly seamless transition for me as I evolve from management to running a label. My years spent working side by side with the owners at Light In the Attic, where I was exposed to pretty much every aspect of the day-to-day operation of a label, really helped prepare me for Drums & Wires Recordings. I owe a lot to those guys (Josh Wright and Matt Sullivan).
So the launching of the label has really been a multi-phased, multi-year process, beginning with The Walkabouts album, evolving into a curated catalog of amazing music coming out of the Belltown scene, of which The Walkabouts were a part of, to now forging relationships with current artists who I don’t necessarily know before hearing their music but whose music touches me and who I think are a good fit with the label.
The website is dedicated to the memory of your brother, Josh. What was his role in the music industry and what has his impact been on your label?
My brother Joshua Wells didn’t have a formal background in the industry, but he was a creative and influential club owner in Los Angeles prior to his passing a few years ago. He was a deep feeling person with amazing style, personality, humor and intelligence. He had a genuine love of music and an ability to really articulate what moved him in music. He would often fête musicians when they were in L.A. and he formed close bonds with many of them – Love and Rockets, U2, REM, and I’m pretty sure he even had Bowie in one of his clubs for an evening – and everyone loved Josh! He was a special person. One of my most treasured memories of my brother was how much he loved the music of Dodi, one of the Belltown bands that I played in. I knew that his compliments of Dodi’s music were deeply considered. This meant more to me than any Rolling Stone endorsement could ever mean.
Some proceeds from the label are donated to Lifelong. Can you tell me a little bit about that organization and your decision to donate a portion of the money earned to them?
My brother died after battling HIV-AIDS for over twenty years. For many of those years he was an activist, an early member of Act Up and an early advocate for clean needle exchanges in Los Angeles and throughout the country. I sometimes feel that there’s more that I could have done to support him and stand by him in the fight to battle the bigots and the reactionaries, people like the Reagans, who at best ignored the epidemic and at worst preyed on the epidemic for political gain and to hurt people. Lifelong is a Seattle-based organization that provides food, housing, and health services to people living with chronic illnesses, including HIV and AIDS (formerly NW AIDS Foundation, Chicken Soup Brigade and Evergreen Wellness Advocates). My decision to donate some of Drums & Wires Recordings’ profits to Lifelong is a small way that I can hold the memory of my brother close and help support people who are struggling with the disease right here at home.
How do you feel about the state of the music industry? What are the challenges and what are the advantages in the current climate?
That’s a big question, where to begin?!
If I were to distill it down to a few tasty soundbites it would be that the most significant challenge is how does an artist make an impression and somehow build a viable career in a world where listener’s have so much to choose from… a million songs instantly on your iPhone, and music has become so devalued in the digital age.
Because of the erosion of music income due to file sharing and streaming, many artists are now required to adapt to a patron approach to fund their art and feed themselves. Amanda Palmer is pretty much the poster woman for this and her book The Art of Asking explores this in depth. Touring was once a loss-leader to sell records, and now touring artists need to figure out how to make touring their primary income with their recordings being the loss-leader. More and more, artists are touring solo or with stripped-down bands, to cut costs so they can actually bring some money home at the end of the tour. The changing economics of making music is changing the making of music.
At the risk of seeming Pollyanna, I think this massive shift in the economics of the music industry has also created opportunities for enterprising people who are willing to get creative about how to make and promote music. This new environment has opened the door for small, scrappy labels like Drums & Wires Recordings to help reinvent the way artists collaborate with business people to get their music to the people. As they say, necessity is the mother of invention, and artist/label partnerships make more sense than ever before.
What are your current musical projects? Are there any bands that you are involved in?
I’m playing in a band called glimmer, we’re finishing a record that I’m very excited about that’s due for release later this year. I first started playing with David Russell, glimmer’s songwriter/bandleader, when he recruited me to play bass in a production of Hedwig and the Angry Inch that was staged at the Moore Theater a few years ago. The Sad, Sad Songs is another band project I’m doing with a group of players who I’m super thrilled to be working with, including Katy from Long Wasted, and we’ll start doing shows later this year.
Is there anything on the horizon for The Walkabouts? Fans, including myself, would be delighted to see another tour or album if the stars were to align.
The Walkabouts are pretty much retired. Bandleader Chris Eckman lives in Slovenia which is a long commute from Seattle where the rest of us live, and he’s busy with his label Glitterbeat as well as a few different bands he plays in, Dirt Music with co-collaborator Hugo Race, The Frictions and Croatian instrumental band The Strange. Carla Torgerson is working on her second solo album which I’m hoping to add to the Drums & Wires catalog. Drummer Terri Pearson is doing a variety of projects including her own music as Terri Tarantula, playing with Paul Austin (The Transmissionary Six) and she’s playing in singer-songwriter Greg Dember’s live band. I believe keyboardist Glenn Slater is resurrecting his old band Melting Fish, and as for me, I’ve got a few irons in the fire. So… not much room for The Walkabouts, but you never know when those stars might align. In the immortal words of the musical poet-philosophers Romeo Void, never say never.
Do you have any advice for young aspiring artists?
Playing music is a very personal experience, and it takes a long time to truly find your own voice. Keep doing it because you have to, because you love it at least most of the time, because it’s your community, because to not play music is not an option for you.
Thank you very much to Michael Wells for his time. It is people like him who help to keep the music industry fresh and exciting for those of us who cherish music as the sacred art that it is.