The Bay Area's got world-class music and killer indie record labels to match. But what does it take to run a tastemaking label? In this new series, we look at the movers & shakers who've been changing the music game here in the past decade.
Alameda-based Ipecac Recordings is the brainchild of Greg Werckman and Mike Patton, former lead singer of seminal alt-metal band Faith No More. Founded in 1999 to put out Patton's musical projects and share their eclectic tastes with the rest of the world, Ipecac has since become home to some of the best experimental and fearless bands around today, like The Melvins, The Locust, Isis, and Unsane. We talked to Werckman, who is the former label manager of legendary Bay Area label Alternative Tentacles (owned by Jello Biafra of the Dead Kennedys), about the highs and lows of what it's like to own a label in this day and age.
On Ipecac’s website, it says that a music revolution is surely needed. What type of revolution?
I think it would just be within the music industry. The same people are in positions of power, and that needs to change. And it’s not just the big record labels. I think a lot of independent labels are just as bad. They get lazy and aren’t that interested in the art of music so much. All you need to do is watch an awards show like the Grammys, and it’s just so depressing. You see these artists that sell millions of records, yet they can’t sing and can’t play their instruments. And it’s like, wow, wait a minute, there are people out there who really play music! It’s pre-ordained who’s going to be popular and who’s not by the industry.
It’s art, and that’s what gets lost. There are a lot of people who don’t consider music art, but it is. Different strokes for different folks, you know? But I’m not naïve, it’s a business too. But the art aspect is what gets overlooked a lot.
How do you straddle the two, then?
It’s just weird. Maybe I sound old, but I just remember when I was younger and I could not wait for a new release, like from SST, Touch and Go, or Dischord, or Alternative Tentacles. And I just knew it was going to be weird, and wicked and cool. I would wait for record stores to open when a new KISS record was coming out. I couldn’t wait to buy that KISS album and hold it in my hand and smell it. Of course now, there’s very few record stores to do that with, but there are also fewer people who are that loyal. If you’re in a band, you’re shelf life is short. If you disappear for a little while, people move on pretty quick.
What's been your favorite band to worth with over the years?
It’s really hard because I’m friends with our bands. Any of our bands can stay in my house or play with my daughter. But having said that, I gotta say working with the Melvins. Personally and musically, the Melvins are a symbol of what Ipecac is. The Melvins are the Melvins, they do what they do no matter where they are, how old they are, what stage they’re on, and it’s a beautiful thing. They’re not looking to be rich and famous. They don’t have a manager, and they don’t need one. They just want to keep touring and keep putting out records. For Mike and I both, when the Melvins offered themselves to us, we were both like “Oh my god we’re a real record label, we got the Melvins!”
Have any bands done crazy things to try to get on Ipecac?
Yes. We’ve been in some weird positions where people who were big and famous tried to be on Ipecac, but musically they weren’t for us, even though we knew we could sell a lot. It’s getting tougher and tougher to turn stuff away because it’s harder now to make money. But if No Doubt came to us and said “Hey we got dropped my our major, and we want to put stuff out on Ipecac”, even if they were really nice people, Mike and I would have to say no. Ipecac’s gotta stand for something.
What have you done with Ipecac that’s different from what other labels are doing?
We don’t own anything. We didn’t used to do contracts, but unfortunately now we do, which just puts more money in lawyer’s pockets. So we do those one-record deals but we license the music from the bands. Several years ago, a record label contacted us about buying us. I told them we weren’t interested in selling but I also pointed out to that label, “Well just so you know, if you bought us you would get our name and I guess maybe you would get Mike and I as A&R guys, but you wouldn’t get any music.” And they were like “What are you talking about?” So, with us, if a band is not happy or if they get a better deal to go somewhere else, they can do that. Likewise, if we’re not happy, if a band is bunch of raging junkies, we can get rid of them.