In an era of streaming sites and fickle music trends, Baltimore exiles Rob Fales and Amanda Niesslein have been releasing records and tapes as Southpaw Records since 2009.
Releasing early recordings by Shannon and the Clams, Ty Segall, and The Bare Wires, Southpaw was there documenting a very exciting time in the Bay Area music scene. Today, Southpaw has over 50 releases under its belt, including Canadian darlings Young Guv and The Hussy, Austin rockers Pleasers, recent Bay Area ex-pats Warm Soda, and Pookie & the Poodlez, as well as more of this year’s class of Bay Area garage groups Youngers Lovers, BTs, and Slick.
The Bay Bridged: Tell me how you got started.
Rob Fales: We were living in Santa Cruz at the time, early 2009, I was a Terminal Boredom (a garage/punk message board) lurker, and what I saw was a lot of bands that I liked that had labels that were putting out their records that I didn’t think were doing a very good job, so I wanted to start a small distro. Then we started doing tapes, and it wasn’t too long after that that we ended up moving to Oakland because Amanda was going to transfer to Cal State Hayward and I was, like ‘Well, the fuck if I’m moving to Hayward!’ so we ended up in Oakland.
Amanda Niesslein: Everyone in Santa Cruz thought we were crazy. ‘You’re moving to Oakland? What’s wrong with you?’
RF: We were going to shows up here all the time, and we are from Baltimore so it wasn’t any worse than that…once we got here, all of the bands we into were here and everyone was…really open to us putting out a tape or something. So it happened really naturally and organically. I will never forget, we had already put out a couple of cassettes (I was literally hand-dubbing them at that point) and Matthew Melton kinda nervously asked me to do a record for The Bare Wires. I kept my cool, but in my mind I was thinking, ‘Are you fucking kidding me? Fuck yeah I’ll put out your record!’ I had no idea how I was gonna come up with the money to do that record, but it was that “Young Love” single. We had done I think one other single before that but that was the first one where we were like, ‘Alright, I think this is gonna work out.’
I remember the first year or two that we moved to California, we went to a show at 12 Galaxies and it was Jay Reatard, King Khan and BBQ Show, and Snake Flower 2 opened. I think that was ‘07, I can’t remember exactly. That was a very influential show for us. We had just moved from the East Coast, we had seen some of those bands but they didn’t tour over there that much at the time. At that time, to us that was a big deal. ‘That band has a record out? They’re not gonna say yes to us…’ It was just kind of that era where bands were just like producing a lot of music, thankfully a lot of good music, so there was, like, scraps for us to pick up. Then we saw Bare Wires open for…I think it was Jay Reatard again, and I think Nobunny played as well. And I just remember being floored, like, ‘Man, this fucking guy lives in the town that I live in, this is awesome.’
Then we kind of went through this thing when we lived here the first time, it was mostly local and at that time and there was a lot of good Canadian bands, so we were kind of into that at the moment and we had become friends with this one dude, Paul Lawton, who’s been in a million bands, so we did some of his stuff for a while, but the main focus was always Bay Area, and I really feel like that was one of my favorite times until now. When we moved back to the East Coast for those two years, we felt really disconnected from here. We almost felt weird doing stuff from here, and a lot of the bands we knew had moved.
AN: Yeah, I think we probably moved around the same time things started to change.
RF: Well, I think the whole reason we moved in the first place was because we were living downtown really cheap, but we were kind of over that apartment. We had lived in that apartment for almost five years, and that was a shitty apartment. It was cheap, but it was shitty. We just wanted better living conditions and as we started to look, things were already getting expensive and in our minds at that time, it was like ‘There’s no way I’m gonna pay $1,200 for an apartment.’
AN: Yeah, I mean, we also thought that we could do the label more intensely over there. We thought maybe we’d only have to work part-time, and do this as part of income or something.
RF: Some fucking pipe dream that we had…
AN: Some pipe dream like that. Because it wasn’t a reality here anymore. Things were changing and things are limited here and that became really obvious. So we thought we could go full-force over there, but it didn’t work.
RF: What we didn’t realize was that what fueled our inspiration and what gave the label its energy was the fact that it was primarily a local label and there were a lot of great musicians who either came here around the same time as us, or had been here forever, and we were just lucky enough to experience that. So we were not happy the way the label was going in Baltimore, just because, like, there wasn’t any good local bands in Baltimore, for the most part. So we were like, ‘Well, I guess we’ll kind of reach out, and there are some other bands we like,’ and it just did not connect. Our audience, which I was not aware that we even had, was like ‘No, I don’t care about Canadian bands’ or whatever it was we were doing at the time. So without going down an entire rabbit hole of how terrible our revisit to Baltimore was, when we came back we just kind of played it cool. And thankfully, pretty much immediately people were very open to the idea of the label being back.
AN: Yeah, I think maybe when we left we were not thinking we were really a part of something but we were, and looking back it was very apparent that we were.
TBB: Since you guys have been around for seven years now, you’ve seen not only the music scene change, but you’ve seen the music industry change. What is it like for Southpaw in 2016 making records and looking for bands they want to work with?
RF: Back when we first started, there was no doubt: You press 500 records, and I felt like, especially if it was a really good record, that record sold pretty quick. That Bare Wires single, I don’t think that thing lasted more than a month or two. And we had nothing for distribution, but it just did really well. Since then it has declined, except for bands who obviously play a lot of shows. We’re very fortunate to be at a point now where it’s like, the people we’re working with, they get it, they see some sort of value in the label or they get what we like to do. People who know what we do and search for it, they enjoy it, and when we put something out, they buy it.
I think that everything has become much more niche — and I don’t think that’s a bad thing. I think we’ve done a few records that did really, really well, and we were like, ‘Maybe this is gonna be a big thing.’ And that didn’t happen, obviously. But I’m really content with, ‘OK, I’m gonna put out 100 cassettes, people are gonna buy it, I’m gonna do 300-500 records, 1,000 records if the band tours a lot. And I’m very content with that.
AN: Yeah, I mean, in 2016, you’re not gonna have a record label unless it’s a labor of love. It’s pretty tough.
RF: It’s tough, but it’s what you want out of it. Every time I get an order, I’m like, ‘Another person bought something, that’s rad,’ and basically I just save that money up until I have enough to start the next thing. That’s very much how the label started.
TBB: Touching back on the record label pressing thing, we’ve all noticed that with the abundance of interest in vinyl and the enthusiasm of vinyl consumers, there’s not enough pressing plants to meet demand. And with a small label, plants like United don’t really care about you one way or the other. Record Store Day takes precedent.
RF: And now it’s like, technically twice a year…For bands who are just starting out, we used to be like ‘OK, we’ll do a single.’ And it would take…I remember when we did the Shannon and the Clams 7-inch, I talked to Shannon, and six weeks later the record was out. Six weeks. Not only is that not the case anymore, but now no one (for the most part) is gonna wait six months for a 7-inch to come out, no way. So we figured, ‘Let’s do cassettes then.’ We do OK with them, but it gives the band something to sell —
AN: It’s something to keep the band going.
RF: Yeah. I mean, if you’re a newer band, you…might not even be around in six months. You know? So to have a cassette in three or four weeks, most bands are open to it. Some bands are still like ‘No, I don’t want anything to do with that.’ And this isn’t a disrespect thing. This is a time and money thing. There’s no denying it. We used to do 7-inch with a cover for probably $700. And now it’s probably $1,100-1,300.
TBB: You guys have a reputation of being a label that is very much a labor of love, and very enthusiastic about every single one of your releases.
RF: I think for the most part, literally, this is usually how it goes: Unless it’s like Younger Lovers or Matthew, that’s an open door. Whenever there’s something in my lap, it’ll eventually come out. Both of those people have LPs that are in the works. Brontez literally is trying to get me an LP tonight. So for the other bands, usually how it works is either I will hit someone up, like, ‘Hey, I’m super-interested in this,’ and they do or do not respond. But usually, like, we’ll get the material one way or another, and I’ll just listen to it a bunch, and usually I won’t say anything to her about what I’m listening to, and if a time or two goes by and she’s like ‘What the fuck is this, I haven’t heard it, it’s really good,’ I’m like, ‘Well, it’s this band.’ So usually it’s something — we typically don’t hop on something like right away. We usually obsess over it for like a month or two and listen to it over and over again.
AN: Yeah. We obsess over it. We listen to it over and over. Even if it took six months to come out, we still listen to that CD every day for six months.
RF: Every fucking day. I get to the point where the CD is in my car, the mp3s are on my phone, and people will ask ‘Oh, what new music are you listening to lately?’ I’m like, ‘I’m listening to the next record that’s coming out.’
AN: Right, like some weird, unreleased thing.
RF: Right. So, yeah it’s really just like obsession, and like —
AN: I think that’s like the high, though, right?
RF: Oh, that’s absolutely the high.
AN: Like it’s not out yet, like it’s almost just for you.
TBB: Yeah, after every session they did, Joey (from BTs) would send me the recordings at like 3 in the morning. He would be stoned out of his mind, and like half in the bag, and I’m coming home from DJing somewhere hearing loud music all night, and I’m listening to this on my laptop in complete pitch black in my living room blown away by it.
RF: That’s the beauty of it. It’s funny, because Matthew did their first single on his label, and then you had told me they recorded new stuff, and I heard that stuff and it was fucking great, and then I was at Jason Testasecca’s