From early beginnings releasing local bands in Colchester through dalliances with major labels and NME fame with Hirameka Hi-Fi to an ambitious trans-atlantic singles club, Gringo have been one of the most interesting DIY labels to come out of the post-bis fanzine era. Dave Stockwell talks to main man Matt Newnham, a man with seeming unending energy, who manages to run a label and distro and promote gigs while keeping a keen ear to the best bands coming out of Glasgow, Nottingham and the USA. Read and learn.
Could you give the readers a little history of the label? When it started, what you were doing before, etc.
In the summer of 1996 Tom Coogan (Hirameka HiFi) and I started writing a fanzine called Damn You! It was a cut’n'paste affair and included lots of slating of our hometown, Colchester. This was probably a little unfair, as Colchester wasn’t exactly a cultural wasteland (the local venue had actually just promoted a Brainiac show!). I then buggered off to Southampton University and left all my friends behind. Tom was playing in a band called Teebo and some of our other friends were playing in a band called Lando (whom Tom had also played in at one time). Gringo came about through a chance meeting on Halloween 1996. We went to see Urusei Yatsura and Eska play at Colchester Arts Centre. Our mob were hunting around for somewhere to sit and we chanced across a young Dan Ackroyd lookalike named Jason Graham. Whilst we had always been taught never to trust a man with two first names, friendships were formed and, more importantly, it turned out Jason was a fully fledged adult with a steady income. The bands seized their chance and entangled Jason in the pyramid scheme that became Gringo Records. I was initially out of the loop, stuck in Southampton, but I quit that particular university over Easter of 1997 and wormed may way into Gringo because I had some disposable income. The first Gringo release was destined to be a Lando/Teebo split 7″. We picked up various tips from the indie labels of the day (Wurlitzer Jukebox was producing a factsheet on how to release your own records). The songs were recorded on 4-track and then transferred badly on to DAT by a gimp. I can distinctly remember picking up the 7″ from the manufacturers in June 1997 and driving in my laser blue Corvette from London to Norwich to see Mogwai. I then proudly handed over a copy of the 7″ to a young Stuart Braithwaite. So I guess that means that Gringo is now seven years old! That 7″ is still a classic and the true Gringo fan is marked out by having a copy in their collection!
Have you been inspired by any labels in terms of style/ambition/enthusiasm?
I can only really speak for myself of course, but at the time Gringo started I was hopped up on Chemikal Underground, Lovetrain, Guided Missile and all the bedroom DIY labels. I’m sure everyone had ’nuff respect for Sub Pop and Dischord also. I give props to any label that has longevity but still manages to release great records. The biggest hurdle is to get over those first few releases and then branch out of your own little circle. I can think of very few labels that started around the same time as us in the UK that are still active.
What kind of a role has the internet played regarding your label? Some people these days operate exclusively via the ‘net, whilst others are still very much mail order based. What’s your stance?
Well, we have a website! I’m not particularly computer literate and for years Marceline, Queen of Diskant, hosted and updated the Gringo website. We eventually came round to the idea of an online shop, which has made it possibly for hepcats from around the world to order Gringo product. E-mail is a godsend. It is a mystery to me how people ran record labels before e-mail. How did they book tours? Did they use smoke signals? Maybe people actually spoke to each other.
Is downloading killing music? Do you harbour any strong feelings sympathetic to or against the RIAA?
I have no interest in whether large corporations believe their profit margins are being slashed by kids downloading the latest Metallica track instead of buying it. They may as well say that music videos killed music – how many people sit and watch MTV2 all day instead of buying records? How do we know they aren’t secretly making video compilations of their favourite tracks, their sweaty evil fat fingers poised on the ‘record’ button, cackling as they shout “Fuck The Man!”? I would argue that the CD burner hurts independent record labels more. I know plenty of people who have told me they do not need to buy a copy of the latest Gringo release because they have already burnt a copy off of their friend. It is slightly different to the old ‘hometaping is killing music’ chestnut. Whilst people did tape things, the fact that the cassette format was less popular surely meant that once an album was taped you were more likely to go out and by a CD / LP. Nowadays, if you a burn a CD album why the fuck would you go out and buy the actual release on CD? For the artwork? I don’t think so. The only way to counter it is to release LPs only, and then people complain that they can’t get it on CD and they are more expensive to make! My head hurts.
Do you feel an affiliation with other bands or labels out there? Is there any kind of community or so-called ‘scene’ – be it local or not – that you feel linked to?
I feel an affinity with any British label that is digging into their pockets and releasing important British music, not just licensing foreign artists whom they know will sell and give them some kudos. Obscene Baby Auction is probably my favourite and there is a crossover of bands between us.
Do you have opinions on the difference between underground & mainstream music?
It is depressing that sometimes there is absolutely no difference. Underground bands, labels, promoters (or whatever) can treat people just as badly as their clichéd counterparts in mainstream music. I’m more inclined to release music which some find unpalatable, but if I was not to pay the band money which they’re owed then I’d be a scumbag.
Has there ever been a time when you felt like calling it a day, that the label was too much trouble?
There have been times when I have felt down about the way things are going, usually when a release doesn’t do as well as I would have hoped and I can’t see where the money for the next one is going to come from. Then I’ll hear some amazing music and it will all be go again. Probably the lowest point was when Gringo looked set to have a distribution relationship with Southern Studios and it all fell apart, together with several of our planned releases. That soured my rose-tinted ideal of the way independent companies operate, but as I’ve grown older, hairier and wiser I’ve realized there are more important things to get het up about.
Imagine for a minute that you had never started the whole label. What would you be spending your time doing?
I’d probably have spent most of my time writing a fanzine or putting on shows. Both of which are things I try and do every now and again. I’d just have more time to tend to those endeavours and my beautiful garden.
Where have you found bands you’ve released stuff by so far? Do you get demos etc sent to you? Do you ask the bands or do they ask you?
We get sent quite a lot of demos but I have a really hard time listening to them. I end up having a pile which I wade through every six months. If they are addressed to our ‘A & R Department’ I immediately pass them on to the nearest available person (usually a housemate) and let them deal with it! Gringo has never released a record by a band after receiving a demo. Which is not to say we won’t, but I would always want to see a band play live first and get to know them personally. It is a lot more fun to release records by folk you respect and can have a good time chewing the fat with. If Gringo has an ethos, it is to almost exclusively release British music. The Singles Club was my one escape clause, and even that was partly devised to make sure some hot GB talent was heard overseas.
Speaking of which, do you have any hot musical tips for us at the moment?
From Blighty: The Unit Ama, Spin Spin The Dogs, Great Bear, Lords. I’m mostly listening to Joanna Newsom right know. A little pixie with a harp.
Who decides on artwork for your releases? Do you have a particular design policy or format you like to adhere to?
I almost always leave it up to the band. I’m fairly capable at laying things out, but I’m not much of an ideas man. The exception was the Gringo Singles Club where I wanted a theme to run though all the records, so the beautiful and talented Chris Baldwin did the honours. The sleeves were all screen printed in my house, with the help and dedication of my friends. I would love to do more screen-printing. I like the process and the ink fumes put funky spots in front of my eyes.
Vinyl vs CD in one final grudgematch (after knocking out tapes & eight tracks in the semi-finals). Who wins?
I love 7″s and will continue to release them even if you do face losing money. If I could afford to release albums on vinyl and CD and the demand was there I would. Gringo currently isn’t at that level, but maybe one day. You forgot about wax cylinder.
Who do you use to make and print your records? Would you recommend them to others?
A cast of thieves and liars.
Do you have any kind of distribution? Tell us about your experiences!
We have distribution in the UK through Cargo Records. We have tried various distributors over the years, and it is always a hit or miss experience. They have a very difficult job to do, but the trick is to find a company who you believe is enthusiastic about your releases. We’re only one release in with Cargo, but so far I am delighted. Overseas we are a bit thin on the ground. It is an area I’m working on like a fiend.
What’s your opinion on the importance of press and media coverage? Do you have any particular policies on how to get it?
My least favourite aspect of running the label is trying to chase up the press. Can you believe that the vast majority of music magazines don’t even have a record player in their offices?! I despise the fact that you have to pay for advertisements to even be in with a chance of a record being reviewed. Even then, magazines like Plan B and Loose Lips have prohibitively expensive advertising prices. I don’t know if the utopia of a thriving, intelligent, music press ever truly did exist, but it certainly doesn’t at the moment. It is a tribute to how strong the maverick spirit is in the UK that an underground does exist when the light never shines on it.
Do you have any Grand World Domination plans for the label, or is it a case of natural evolvement?
I’m yet to fully sketch out my latest plans for world domination, though I am fairly certain it will involve album releases by Polaris and Soeza. I’d like Gringo to still be going in five years’ time and for more people to be able to get hold of the records we put out. I’d also like to stop my bedhead.
Got any advice for the prospective new label mogul?
Network, network, network.
Finally, what would be your dream release – which band, which format, and how would it be packaged?
Unwound. I’d do it on triple vinyl, with a different sleeve for each band member. I’d press six billion copies and ensure that every person in the world has a copy. I’m hoping this will cut eBay out of the equation.