Piñata Records: Folks drinking and swearing and brainstorming
Photo by Dave Hoenack
They might have chosen the name Piñata Records, but the four members of Southside Desire who founded the label have hardly stuffed it with the unexpected. With two releases last year, and a third out this weekend, Piñata has put perceptions of the "throwback" act on its ear by giving it a distinctive punkish edge. Southside Desire's LP, Songs to Love and Die To, gave a "spirit of '77" jolt to retro soul, and the Narco States EP that followed it took the same approach to reviving vintage garage rock.
Gimme Noise met Marvel Devitt, Trevor E, Gloria Iacono, and Damien Tank at Memory Lanes to talk about the label's direction and its new release, a split single featuring two songs each from Southside Desire and Black Diet.
Tank says the label was inspired by Our Noise, the 2009 book about Merge Records subtitled The Indie Label That Got Big and Stayed Small. "It was especially the first 10 chapters or so, when they were just putting out their friends' records around Chapel Hill, but it also had a lot of practical information. Things like, 'What is a distributor?' not to mention a business model we ended up co-opting. We make sure everyone we work with is compensated as equally as we are, keeping everything as 50/50 as possible."
"The thing that holds it together is an attitude," explains Devitt. "It's not throwback or retro, but an approach." This approach is what Black Diet's lead singer, Jonathan Tolliver, has described as "garage influenced, energetic, and unpretentious."
Tolliver's rockin' soul band is the third and latest to be pressed by Piñata, having pushed itself into their world at just the right time. Marvel Devitt explains how they discovered Black Diet, who were then playing under another name: "Sometimes I peruse the Craigslist musician postings for entertainment. If I ever have a bad day I just look there a while, because some of it is really outrageous. Once in a while I post something myself and on one occasion I finished doing that -- 'Keyboard player wanted for soul band' -- and I found another band had written almost the same thing only a couple days earlier."
"I thought, 'What the fuck? Who are these guys?' So I looked them up -- JT and the Sloppy Seconds -- and found they were really good. They had been together a while longer than us. I found a few old videos and loved them." Devitt sent them a message and forgot about it.
Tolliver, i.e. frontman JT, contacted the Nomad World Pub about playing Southside Desire's next show there, the album release for Songs to Love and Die To. And who is the Nomad's booking agent? None other than Trevor E. Seemingly destined to work together, the members of Southside Desire first saw JT and the Sloppy Seconds perform that night. "My jaw dropped," says Devitt, "They floored me. They made me scared a little bit. 'We've got to follow these guys?' And that little bit of friction is good."
The bands established a healthy friendship, exchanging members on occasion. Mr. E and Tolliver traveled to South by Southwest and reported their adventures back on the label's blog. Tolliver's band evolved into Black Diet, who recorded two new songs for this week's new 7-inch single.
"Working with Piñata is the best situation I could imagine Black Diet being in," said Tolliver when Gimme Noise asked him about the label. "Not only do they have an appreciation for bands that sound like us, but they work overtime to get the word out. Their workspace is open and inviting, and really conducive to this sort of workmanlike creativity. Feels sort of like a scene from Mad Men when I'm there. Folks drinking and swearing and brainstorming. Mad Men with less fucked up things happening.
Piñata's fourth release will add another group with the same tenacious take on retro to the roster this September, and the connection started that same night at the Nomad. "Steve [Spletztaser] and Johnny [Eggerman] gave me their demo disc at our album release show," explains Tank. "But then I lost it. I never played it. So I looked for their music online and I found a MySpace page -- they're still using a Myspace page -- and the songs I heard were incredible. 'Light Speed Romance' was one of them. Fast, modern, really tight power pop. Buzzcocks-y, Jam-y, Cheap Trick-y stuff."
Mystery Date is hardly a first project for Eggerman and Spletztaser, who are joined by the Union Suits' Grady Appleton. "Steve played in my first junior high band, and also in Trevor's first, which was a different band at a different junior high. He was also in a band called Please Don't Hurt Me that was awesome, and then another called the Future. The first time I saw this new band, Mystery Date, was here with Narco States, whose single we had just agreed to release."
"Trevor and I have played in bands together since we were 14, and none of them has ever been asked to be on a record label," explains Tank. "In all those years nobody was ever excited about it. It would have been great if some goofy, outsider label came along and said, 'We think what you're doing is great and we'd like to put it on a record.'"
"We didn't want to do that when we were 21," Mr. E adds. "We were the uncool kids. We're still the uncool kids. Playing with Southside Desire and starting this label is the coolest thing I've ever done, besides being married to Marvel. I don't know why we didn't do this sooner."
Gloria Iacono, who turns in her first performance as lead vocalist on the new Southside Desire side, recalls finishing a record with the Running Scared, a band that included Mr. E and Tank. "I looked at Trevor and asked if we wanted to send it to some labels. He gave me this deadpan look and said, 'Why would we do that?'"
"I remember making up packages for Bitch & Brown to send to labels," adds Devitt. "By that time everyone had done it so many times. How much you lose this stuff you could be selling, that's probably going to be turned into plant stands or something later."
"Now we're in a position in life where we want to do it," says Tank. "Every time we work with a band it's because we love them. We know how it is to play five or ten shows a month when your friends who got older stopped coming when they had kids. It feels so good when somebody outside your circle cares and gets excited about what you're doing. That puts wind beneath your sails, and that's what we're trying to do with this label."
"It's a great feeling, to be the fan who gets to be more than a cheerleader, who gets to have a hand in it."
"Someone should send us a record in the mail," adds Devitt suddenly realizing the potential. "That would be awesome! Some people don't want submissions but we do. We'd love it."
Southside Desire and Black Diet release their 7-inch split on Sunday, July 21, at Palmfest held at Palmer's Bar. Performers also include Mary Allen & the Percolators, the Ear Strippers, Sex Rays, Mr. Hide, and more. RSVP here.
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