Interview: Jeff Matlow of crank! A Record Company

words by Jackson Ellis | photo courtesy of Jeff Matlow
| Tuesday, February 4th, 2003

JeffOriginally published in Excommunication issue #2

When most kids piss and moan about how much major labels suck, it’s a safe assumption that they might very well be among the sheep trying to sound cool without any basis for their aversions. Then, one day, you talk to a guy like Jeff Matlow, and the resentment for corporate rock and roll just makes sense, because he’s been there, done that. “Major labels are bad,” says Jeff in so many words, and then he tells you why. Even still, if life’s lemons can bring lemonade, then Jeff’s musical offspring, crank!, is one of the sweetest pitchers in the grand refrigerator of record labels. Some label people have the knack and the fortune to sign musical talent that exists ahead of its time, and crank! is among those revolutionary few. From Mineral and Boys Life, to the Icarus Line and Neva Dinova, crank! have dodged the bullets of pigeonholing and enjoyed moments of indie rock industry success that so many of us dream about. This is what label founder Jeff Matlow has to say about it all.

Please give me a bit of crank! history. When was the label started, by whom, and why?
Hello, my name is Jeff Matlow and I started crank!. (This already feels like a 12-step, doesn’t it?) Why did I start the label? Well, I started it was really out of frustration. There’s this great song by Plan B, an unknown German band, called “Discontentment Is My Engine.” And that is so true. crank! was born out of my discontent with my working situation. I had worked for a few major labels (EMI, A&M, etc.) and got to a point where I was just becoming frustrated. This was all in the late ’80s/early ’90s, at the time when labels didn’t care much about the consumer. Record labels had no idea who was buying the records nor did they even want to know. Also, bands were just pieces of product. Bands had very little to no say in their careers.

I remember the last company I was working for, everyday was an argument for me. I had my ideas of how a label should be run, and I’d go into work and just argue for what I believed was right. It got frustrating. I guess the final straw was when I was trying to sign a band and the label decided not to sign them for a ridiculous reason. I was amazed and frustrated so I decided to put the record out myself. So when I started crank!, I made a promise to myself to never work with bands that I don’t love and with people that I don’t respect.

Eight years later, it still holds true. We also listen to our bands a lot and respect their opinions (which a lot of labels do now, but wasn’t so popular with the majors back in the day). And we listen to the crank! fans a lot and respect their opinions. Of course, it helps if the opinions are the same as mine…heh heh. Just kidding. Kind of. Well, not really.

Where was the label founded? I believe you said you are originally from nearby (to me) Westport, Connecticut…how did you end up in California?
Yes, I am originally from Westport. I grew up there and moved to Los Angeles in 1989 to work for A&M Records. I’ve been out here in California ever since. It’s nice and sunny out here. I’d say there are less snobby people here than in Westport, but I don’t know if that’s true. crank! was started on September 4, 1994 (9/4/94) in lovely Santa Monica, California. In my living room. With about $2,000. We’re out of the living room now, and we spent through that $2,000. Fortunately, we’ve brought in some other money to help keep us moving forward!

Ever been involved with or run any other record labels? Ever play in any bands?
I used to play in bands. Really bad bands. Which is good, since I was a really bad musician. I also was a DJ, and I did a bit of producing/engineering for a few seconds. Then, somewhere around the end of college, I realized that I had no talent whatsoever and that I’d be better off on the other side: working for a record company rather than trying to be a rock star. So, as mentioned, I became an A&R guy for record companies. My first major label job was at EMI in New York, then A&M, Scotti Bros., and Interscope.

Are the people involved with running crank! able to squeak by on living expenses, or do you all have to work side gigs?
We’re lucky enough to have fulltime workers here. Nobody has to work side gigs. Unless you have a good offer. We’ll consider any offer.

What was the first band you ever signed?
Vitreous Humor, an incredible band out of Lawrence, Kansas. I was introduced to Vitreous Humor and fell in love with their music immediately. As mentioned above, I wanted to sign them to the label I was at but the label didn’t want to because they already had a band from Kansas. Good reason, right? Go figure. So, anyway, I got together with a partner and put out the first Vitreous Humor 7” under the name Geerhed Records. After that record, I parted ways with the partner and changed the label to crank!. The rest, as they say, is hysterical.

Having released records by Mineral, Sense Field, etc. do you find that crank! has been pigeonholed as a certain type of label? And if so, is it difficult to open people’s minds to the variety of music crank! releases?
Yes, crank! has definitely been pigeonholed as an emo label. Especially from our first three releases…Vitreous Humor, Boys Life, and Mineral. At the time, emo was just becoming known…it was still very much an underground scene. Actually, bands like Mineral started making it more popular, along with The Promise Ring and others. So being an emo label back then was kind of difficult. Every time we’d release a “non-emo” record, like Fireside or The Regrets, immediately people would call it emo without stepping back and really listening to the music. It definitely did/does cause some problems in our abilities to sell a lot of certain types of records.

Now, however, with the success of Jimmy Eat World, Dashboard Confessional, The Get Up Kids, etc., emo has become pretty darn popular. So all of the sudden the emo label is cool. Again, go figure. I guess that would make crank! revolutionary five years ago, huh? Would that make me cool? That’d be neat. I’ve always wanted to be cool.

What has been your most successful release so far?
You know, this is a tough question for me. I really look at every release as an evolution in crank!. Every release helps the label move forward in some way for some reason. In that sense, every release is our most successful. I’ve learned the most as a record label owner from some of our releases that have sold the least. That, in my mind, is a success. I suppose you’re talking about record sales though, aren’t you? I thought so. Our best selling records are Mineral releases, Cursive releases, the (don’t forget to) breathe comp, and The Gloria Record. Hopefully Neva Dinova will be up there shortly!

When signing new bands, do you compare their work to your most successful acts?
I definitely don’t compare new band signings to stuff we’ve already released. Granted, as mentioned above, there is a definite “crank! sound” that I adhere to in our signings — though I do continuously try to expand that sound — so I make sure bands fit within the crank! theme, if you will. But I would never listen to a band and think something like, Hmm, this band sounds like Mineral and people really like the Mineral record so I should sign this band. To the contrary, I’ve turned down bands that sound too much like any of our releases.

What are the biggest challenges to running a label?
Ooh, the biggest challenges question. This is always a difficult question to answer because there are so many challenges in running a label — or running your own company, for that matter. Of course money is always an issue. Distribution is oftentimes frustrating for any record label. As a somewhat smaller label we have limited resources, so it’s continuously a battle to get to do everything we want to do. To support the bands on the road as much as I really want to support them. And then there is the responsibility of having the employees and the band members. I want to make sure everybody is happy and, unfortunately, that can’t and won’t always happen. It’s just the way business is…and that’s the thing about owning an indie label, it’s definitely a work of passion, but it’s also a business. And no matter how passionate I get about what I’m doing, I still have to make business decisions.

Tell me a bit about the incredible band Neva Dinova. How did you become so fortunate to work with such a great band? What do you think the future holds for them (major label signing, perhaps?).
Yeah, they are pretty incredible, aren’t they? Musically, they’re amazing, and personally they’re wonderful too. I love when that happens! I was actually introduced to the band by Matt from Cursive. Matt called up Fred (who works with me at crank!) and told him that he needs to hear this new band from Omaha who have a kick-ass record. He sent the record over and Fred flipped out over it. Fred gave it to me and I loved it. So we became lucky enough to sign the band and work with them.

As far as the future for the band, I haven’t really considered major label signings for them. Honestly, I don’t even know if the band has thought about that either. We haven’t discussed it. We’re just working it day to day. We want to get them out on the road as much as possible and make sure as many people hear this record as we can get. Fortunately, we’re getting a great response! In fact, I just found out yesterday that the Los Angeles Times is listing the record as number nine in their Top 10 Albums of the Year. So that’s pretty damn exciting! Hopefully that will open some more doors for us and the band. It’s all about the baby steps, y’know?

What is one band you would like to work with more than anything?
The Beatles. It would’ve been a blast to be on that ride with them. There has never been anything like what they’ve done and I don’t think there ever will be. I would’ve loved to have been on the inside of that to feel it all and see it all happen.

What is with the crank! logo? Is that guy related to the Michelin Man?
Heh heh.. I don’t know if I should think that’s funny or be offended. Actually, the crank! logo was the Michelin Man’s second cousin, twice removed. But seriously folks, as I said above, the original name of the label was Geerhed Records. I’m a bicyclist (actually, I’m also a runner, triathlete, marathoner, and all round outdoor psycho, but we won’t get into that)…a gearhead is an endearing term for an avid mountain biker. So I drew a logo of a guy with a gear as his head. When I needed to change the name, I wanted to keep a name that had some biking reference. Hence, crank!. And the logo remained. So that’s my story and I’m stickin’ to it.

Where do you plan on taking the label in 2003?
Encino. Actually, we will continue signing and releasing great music (in the process of signing an amazing new band right now, as a matter of fact) and trying to expose the crank! rock to as many people as we can. I should probably also say something witty here, but it was a rough night last night and I really can’t think of anything to say. Thanks for caring!

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