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Interview: Mark MacDougall of 75orLess Records discusses Fusion Fest, his label’s evolution, and Warren pride

 

The little East Bay town of Warren, Rhode Island, has a lot of charm. All over Main Street you have some of the coolest thrift and knicknack shops along with fantastic restaurants and even a legendary delicious coffee cabinet from long time establishment Delekta Pharmacy. There are also a few hole in the wall bars that have pretty cheap drinks that’ll get you buzzed and the community itself is filled with some of the nicest people who’ve lived in this place all their lives. One thing that also doesn’t go unnoticed is the unique arts and music scene that adds to the town’s appeal.

On Sunday at Burr’s Hill Park on Water Street, this year’s edition of the Fusion Fest will be taking place featuring delicious craft beer and live music from a bunch of awesome bands from around the area. A partnership between the Fusionworks Dance Company and local label 75orLess Records, all beer sales go to benefit the educational and community work of Fusionworks to help support the company’s endeavors. Known around these parts as “Slick” and also the singer and bassist for indie rock act Six Star General, label owner Mark MacDougall and I had a chat over a few brews at Jack’s Bar, located up the street from Burr’s Hill. We talked about the label’s original start as a music review site, who he’s working with to put on Fusion Fest, how much Warren has changed over the years, and what 75orLess plans on releasing in the future.

Rob Duguay: First things first, let’s get into the story behind 75orLess Records. How did it start out? Has it just been you since the begging or did you work with a few others to get it off the ground?

 

Mark MacDougall: Originally 75orLess was a review site and not a label. We started in October 2001 reviewing albums in 75 words or less, this was way before Twitter so it was a big deal at the time and within a couple of months we were literally getting a thousand submissions. This was before digital downloads so we were getting CDs mailed in and at the end of the year Time Magazine listed us as one of the best music websites out there. We got crushed with even more attention for that and even more CDs started mailing in. We started getting a bunch of writers but what ended up happening was the same thing I was seeing in Providence with small bands that were making amazing records but nobody was finding out about, those types of bands from all over the country and the world were sending them in to be reviewed. Now I was the one hearing them saying “This is unbelievable, more people need to hear this.”

That was where the label actually started, I would tell them flatout “There isn’t much I can do for you, you’re in California but I’d like to duplicate your album, make copies, send you copies, I’ll sell some, you’ll sell some at your shows and we’ll combine our forces.” That’s how the label started with the first two bands not being local bands. One was John Curley from The Afghan Whigs, Staggering Statistics was the first release and the second one was a band from New York called A Passing Feeling. Six Star General had a show at the old Blackstone and we happened to get paired up with these 19- and 20-year-old kids from Long Island who had a Thermals and Guided By Voices obsession and it was beautiful. We were blown away and I told them how I just started a label at the time, I’m still friends with them to this day and they’ve put out two albums with me. The label started in January 2006 with those two albums, non-local. Then the local bands started contacting me and that’s how the label started rolling with the more local focus.

How many bands do you have on your roster would you say as of today?

Well, the 10-year anniversary is coming up in January and the 200th album is going to be coming out around that time. Active bands that are playing live, probably around 25. As far as bands that are actively making albums we put out, I would say 50. In a lot of cases, there’s someone like Kraig Jordan. He’s not a live performer, he runs a studio and his people come by. He puts out an album every three months under a different name on 75orLess, whether it’s Stan Sobczak or The Masons or Junior Varsity Arson. He’s somebody who’s a prolific studio person who hides away and just puts out album after album. So yeah, I would say there are around 50 or so bands who are making music and half of those are performing live.

Fifty is a big number to have, that’s a lot more than a lot of other labels.

It’s pretty crazy but they’re people who just love making music. They’re going to do it anyway and not with the goal of having people hear it so much. Some people play softball, some people fish and the people I know record and make albums, that’s it. That’s just the activity we choose, it’s a little unusual. I’m going to be 47 soon so I realize that I’m on the older end of the spectrum as far as a person who would run a label and is a music fan. It’s also people like me who came of age during the time of The Replacements, Husker Du and Black Flag that never gave up that initial excitement of music. To us, when we hear that kind of punk rock it never stopped making us excited about music so we’re all still inspired by that and making albums. We’ve may have started families and gotten married but that spark never went away when it came to the excitement of music.

These days, thing appear to be more versatile when it comes to starting up a record label. Especially with the internet where you can put everything you have on Bandcamp, sell it for $5, share it everywhere and you’ll get people from all over the planet that have an internet connection to buy your records. You can pretty much promote your stuff for free, all you have to do is click a share button. Starting from 2006 until now, how has that effected the way 75orLess has been run?

You know, you do have to go with the trends and in my opinion the CD has been dead for a while. With mp3 players and things like that the CD has been kind of been made irrelevant. However, I will say in its defense that as far as I know if you buy a new car it still comes with a CD player. So as far as the album format goes, the CD is very much alive. That has yet to be replaced by something that’s consistent. Things come and go, there have been minidiscs and laserdiscs.

Eight-tracks too.

Yeah, so formats come and go. I’m not in love with the CD, when I first started up there was no such thing as digital downloads. Right now, I’d say 90% of the albums I put out link to a digital download as an option.That was never the case, but times have changed and I think there’s just as many good points with that ease of sending your music out and anyone can do it. Now the market is flooded so selling your music can be even more difficult now. The technique of getting it out there is easier with uploading it and sending out a link, as far as actually getting people who matter to hear your music I think it’s become more difficult.

You have to wade through a lot of crap.

Exactly, and that’s the thing is that I don’t want to say I still do that because for the most part it wasn’t always on Providence bands with me. There are some people who might have the assumption that I work with everybody but I don’t. I turn down a lot of local bands and it’s not that they’re not good, it’s that it’s not my style. I could be like “Wow, that’s a really great roots band. I’m sorry, but I don’t like roots music.” Just because somebody can perform a style well doesn’t mean that I want to get involved in the act of promoting them. Just because it’s a label, doesn’t mean I have the power to make anyone commercially successful. Everyone I work with knows that going in, there’s not a great shock and they’re not contacting me saying “So what’s going on? How come we’re not on the cover of Rolling Stone yet?” Nobody’s doing this to eat and survive so there’s a casualness about what we’re doing.

There’s no pressure to break bands commercially, a place like WBRU has been around forever and they have the Homebru’d show every night at 9 and stuff. I think it would be crazy for a band on my label, somebody in their 30s or late 30s and 40s, to think that the people who listen to WBRU are the target audience. We are not the target audience, dude. We’re local but I’m sorry, if I was somebody in my early 20s I wouldn’t want to go to the Rock Hunt Finals and see four bands with members in their 40s and 50s. I would be like “Fuck these old dudes,” so I can understand why 75orLess even on the local level remains sort of obscure. We’re not the Columbus Theatre scene that’s mostly heavy on folk and we were never as extreme as Fort Thunder. We’re somewhere in between where all the bands that didn’t fit into the scenes end up on my label. It’s weird music that’s not obviously noise, it’s not obviously folk, it’s all the people who are doing that weird unusual music in between that doesn’t have that much commercial potential to begin with. That’s what makes it interesting.

It’s all about a passion for it.

Exactly, the goal for us is to see how may people can we convince the genius of this.

Ever since the start of the decade, vinyl sales have risen to all-time highs. There are even labels that do vinyl only releases where they don’t even put stuff on the internet, they just bring records to local shops and they make an exchange. As a label owner, what do you think of revival of vinyl’s popularity? Do you like it? Do you think it’s only a fad or do you think it can last again?

I do like it, I do definitely think that there’s a fad aspect to it but that’s OK. In my opinion, revenue into a flailing industry that helps artists is a good thing no matter how it’s happening. The fact of the matter is, with the limited amount of pressing plants we have in America when major clients come in the indies get pushed aside. That’s why the lead times have grown, we’re putting out Gavage’s debut album and we’ve had a record at the plant and we’re waiting 20 weeks to get it pressed. That’s from when they get the acetates made until the time when we’re going to get that record. It took seven months to mix it but the album itself, the recording part, will have been done for a year the time the album comes out. You got to have patience and it’s not cheap, you’re have to really want to do it if you want to do vinyl.

I think it’s great, I actually have a huge record collection but I don’t play the vinyl that much. I buy a ton of vinyl, probably five to seven a month but I mostly do it to support the artist who released it. Not so much that I’m a purist and it sounds better on vinyl, my ears are damaged so I can’t tell anymore to be frank with you. My ears have heard a lot of live music and are not very clear in my opinion so I’m not sure if there’s a major difference between the sound of digital and vinyl records but I buy a ton of vinyl to support the people putting them out. I like the fact that they’re taking a not so cheap option to release their music, it makes me think “Hey, you know what? They sucked it up whether they did a Kickstarter or not. They got the money together and now they’re selling them for $20 a pop.” Most of them give an immediate digital download, you can put it on your iPod and you can listen to it that night.

Sometimes even a sticker or a poster comes with it.

I love the fact that with labels like Merge and Matador you can pre-order things and get exclusive releases. They’re rewarding people with, for example, with pre-orders being white vinyl while all the others are black. I love that stuff, it’s worth it to me and I want the one that there’s 100 copies of. Now we’re getting into the collector community, which is another thing that drives prices up that sometimes I’m not happy with.

It’s kind of the same thing with comic books to an extent.

Something on limited vinyl will come out and someone will scoop up 10 copies and out 9 of them on eBay. Isn’t that what Record Store Day has become? I think it’s great that they’ve marketed it as this day where people go into music stores, that’s awesome. I’m a big fan of that and I’m glad that it’s coming back because I think for a lot of people much younger than me record stores were things that they saw in movies. For example, Empire Records makes kids think “Oh yeah, record stores used to be a thing.” In reality, they actually are still places where teenagers can go to like I did as a teenager when I would go hit up Thayer Street in Providence. You had places like Tom’s Tracks and In Your Ear where you would go in and just browse the bands. You had $25 for the week to spend and you’d spend it on records.

With Fusion Fest going on this Sunday, 75orLess curated all the bands right?

We do it every year. Because it’s a Warren festival and I’m a Warren native so five years ago they knew I was involved with music so they approached me. The very first Fusion Fest was held in Providence and it didn’t go over too well. Then Katie Dickson moved to Warren and she took the Fusion Fest with her so we held it right on Water Street for the first three years. Then we moved it to Burr’s Hill Park for the last two, which is a much better venue. It’s flat, there’s hills, it’s very spacious, there’s a beach across the street, there’s a 530-foot fiberglass band shell that provides an amplification that people have told me before is better than any club in Providence. When we do the Fusion Fest, we only mic the vocals and we don’t mic anything else and it sounds awesome.

This will be my fifth year doing it, they let me take the stage and run it. I manage it during the day and a bunch of volunteers come. All the bands share a backline and they usually play 25 minute sets. They sell a ton of beer, a lot of food trucks go down there and all the money goes to Fusionworks, which is a dance troupe that operates out of a couple studios in the area and they do a lot of great things. Burr’s Hill hosts movies and music in the park so there’s a lot of bands that have been coming down and playing from Providence. Death Vessel have played there a couple times, Ian Fitzgerald has come down along with the What Cheer? Brigade so a lot of bands from the west side of Providence and in the Columbus Theatre scene and have been coming to play there. Fusion Fest is like the day where they let the weirdos kind of have their day. Every year has gotten bigger and better, especially now that they’ve moved it to Burr’s Hill there’s room for hundreds of more people. The facilities are great, there’s bathrooms so it’s nice.

Warren is a small town but what makes the place interesting is that you have this really cool artistic community. You’re running 75orLess Records, artist Will Schaff runs a place called Fort Foreclosure and he puts on shows there, The Wooden Midshipman also puts on shows. Sasquatch from Sasquatch & The Sick-a-billies runs a thrift shop called Podsnappery over on Main Street where he’ll actually have musicians come in and record. In Your Ear has also moved to Main Street. So you have all of these things happening here, and you were born, raised and still here. What was it like growing up in Warren? Did it always have an artistic community? Was it a port town because it’s on the bay?

It was a port town but long before my time came, those days already came and gone. When I was growing up the factories were just closing down but there was not much of an arts scene then. The town has really improved as far as where art comes in, they have a few galleries now which is unusual. It’s basically the north end where the real art revitalization has taken place. Warren is a ridiculously small town so it’s been very weird to watch but I guess every dog has it’s day. Warren has become a pretty trendy place for people to come to and I’m enjoying it. I find it amusing because Warren was probably the least trendy town that could be. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve had little apartments in Providence and in Charlestown, I’m moved around in Rhode Island a lot but I never changed my mailing address from being in town.

The saying we have here is “Warren born, Warren bred, when I die I’ll be Warren dead”, I thought every town had it but everyone else is like “No dude, that’s your town.” and I’m like “Really? You haven’t heard that? It works for almost any town.” and they’ll say “It only really sounds right with Warren.” And then I’ll just think about how creepy that sounds. I’m glad to see young people moving out to the suburbs because they maybe can’t afford the rent you might find in Providence. I think that’s funny and I don’t think it can hurt the town, when you think of the East Bay you’re looking at Bristol, Warren and Barrington. Barrington, forget it, it’s the rich kids so Warren has always had a chip on their shoulder about them.

Cardigan sweaters all over the place, everyone looks like Danny Tanner from Full House.

Bristol is just a bigger version of Warren. Which means that Warren is at the bottom of Bristol County, which is probably at the bottom of all the counties in Rhode Island so it’s tough to take pride in a place like this but there’s a reason that I’m still here. It’s always been more pleasurable to me to drive 15 to 20 minutes into Providence to a show and then get the hell out of there. It would have been very easy when I was in my 20s and 30s to fall into a trap in Providence and drink myself to death. I chose to avoid that and from putting myself in that position because it very easily could have happened. With the label I probably spend around $2,000 of my own money a year but before the label I was probably spending $5,000 a year drinking. So when you put things in perspective, spending only $2,000 is awesome. It’s just a matter of channeling it in the right direction.

What releases are on the horizon for 75orLess Records that you want to talk about?

This ninth year is on track to be tied with the busiest year I’ve ever had. There can easily be 28 albums that come out on the label this year. It’s been such a productive year, the bands really have their shit together. I can’t force them to make an album so the bands really are focused this year so it’s been easy to handle a busy release schedule. We have a bunch of them coming out, The Funcrushers is Pete Lima’s band. He’s been around for a while, he was a drummer for The ‘Mericans and he was also in one of the original 75orLess bands back in 2006 called The Cold War.

He’s also a DJ who goes by the name Handsome Pete.

Yep, when we have our 10th anniversary celebration I’m hoping to get some of the original bands to play and Pete was open to it so I just got to talk to his other old bandmates to see if they’ll do it. Christian Rhodehamel has two projects coming out with Radio Carbon and Jaguar Hands, the latter has a record out that is absolutely unbelievable. Jets Can’t Land, another great Providence band with a bunch of older guys around my age have an EP coming out called You Can’t Linger On. I also have a split 7″ series going on, each band is contributing six minutes of music and doing split singles. Feng Shui Police got an album coming out in November and there’s also the Gavage album that I mentioned earlier.


Check out details on Fusion Fest via the flyer below, and check the Facebook event page for the full lineup


FusionFestFlyer