The Mouse That Roared

Art rock: James Lindbloom with his aunt's painting
Tony Nelson

James Lindbloom is something of a contrarian. In an age when corporate labels and file-sharing services wage war over the future of music, when even the dinkiest indies offer at least a little taste of their wares online, the head of Roaratorio Records doesn't offer so much as a single sample of his catalog on the local label's natty Web site ( This omission doesn't come from neglect or Luddite tendencies. It's simply that Lindbloom's belief in the album as a work of art is so strong that he makes packaging a major priority.

"Sure, I download stuff from time to time when I can't get it any other way," Lindbloom reports over drinks at Eli's Bar and Grill in Minneapolis. "But how much satisfaction is there in having, say, a Britney Spears CD-R with the song titles scrawled in magic marker or whatever? I like having a complete package--something I can hold in my hands and think, This is cool. An artifact, if you will."

Lindbloom's predilection for spectacular cover art has been a Roaratorio trademark since the label's start in July of 2000. It was then that he conceived a very unusual project: a collaboration between Steve Lacy--a true monster among jazz reedmen--and Lindbloom's own aunt.

"My aunt Judith is a painter," he explains. "She was living in Greenwich Village in the Fifties, hanging out with Franz Kline and DeKooning and that crew. She and Lacy were an item at the time and remain friends to this day...but they had never had a chance to collaborate on anything. And she's never really gotten the recognition she deserves. So I pitched the idea to them of doing a [set of] limited-edition Lacy album[s] with handpainted covers by my aunt."

Lacy sent Lindbloom a few CD-Rs and Lindbloom opted for two live sessions featuring--in various combinations--Lacy, electronica trailblazers Richard Teitelbaum and Michel Waisvisz, and trans-global percussion wizard Han Bennink. So it was that Sideways, Roaratorio's first release, was born. And Judith Lindbloom painted the covers--399 of 'em--over the course of the next year. (Keep in mind we're talking 12-inch vinyl LPs here--and acrylics.) Lindbloom advertised the release online and the orders started rolling in. The edition sold out easily. Even as Lindbloom maintained a waiting list for copies, sending them out when he received the covers, some unofficial "dealers" were getting as much as $250.00 for Sideways on eBay.

Roaratorio's second release, My Gate's Open, Tremble by My Side, by English dronemeisters Vibracathedral Orchestra (who have a split 7-inch with Low coming out soon on the Misplaced Music label) featured abstract covers hand-painted by the band members. Its 250 copies sold out in three weeks.

If it's the packaging and the scarcity of the albums that moves the units, it's the music that gets the press. And for a label with only three releases to date, Roaratorio has gotten a fair amount. While most reviews have appeared in jazz-oriented organs like Jazziz, Cadence, and One Final Note (the latter is one of several publications Lindbloom writes for), they've also popped up in places like indie-rock mega-zine Badaboom Gramophone, psychedelia bible Ptolemaic Terrascope, and that be-all-and-end-all of adventurous music worldwide, The Wire.

Certainly Lindbloom's high standards have played a big role in ink already spilled about Roaratorio. But the fact that his releases tend to jump genre boundaries like a flock of lambs on meth easily means just as much for the label. First Lindbloom releases a jazz record that's heavy on the highbrow electronics, then he pops a drone record that makes it into the jazz periodicals because it's improvised--and because Lindbloom's first record was by a jazz star. And then, last December, he releases The Music Ensemble.

The first extended sonic document of the New York City loft scene of the Seventies, The Music Ensemble--which features Roger Baird, Billy Bang, Malik Baraka, Daniel Carter, William Parker, and Herb Kahn--provides a glimpse of a world in seed form. Bristling with parallels to the Creative Music scene that flourished in Chicago at the same time (think Art Ensemble of Chicago), the release defies genre expectations. Sure, it's a bunch of jazz dudes, but the music displays none of the frantic quality you'd expect from a free- jazz session at that time. It's oddly spacious and laid-back, with a ritualistic quality redolent of, say, London bands Psychic TV or Current 93. The difference is that the Music Ensemble players have a real command of their instruments.

"I've always been a big fan of cross-pollination," Lindbloom notes of his eclectic tastes. "My favorite labels are Table of the Elements and Siltbreeze, and especially [the late John Fahey's label] Revenant. I mean, you've got Cecil Taylor and Derek Bailey and Doc Boggs and Harry Smith archival stuff all on the same label. On a similar note, [John Zorn's group] Naked City was a huge revelation to me. I mean, free jazz, punk rock, and soundtracks all rolled into one? What could be better?"

Lindbloom, unlike many--if not most--avant types, does not disdain rock. He speaks passionately and easily of his admiration for locals Grant Hart, Marlee Macleod, and Fog, maintaining that the last group's Andrew Broder just might be possessed by genius. In fact, after Roaratorio's next release--the first CD ever by local jazz legend Carei Thomas--Lindbloom is considering what some might construe as a very curious project for a sound slinger of his ilk: a vinyl release by notorious rockabilly madman Hasil Adkins.

"It's a long story," says Lindbloom about the deal with Boone County, West Virginia's most famous citizen. "Nothing is really settled yet, but we're talking."

Lindbloom chooses his alliances very carefully, and for good reason. Although his first two releases sold out easily, most of Roaratorio's capital comes from Lindbloom's day job as a temp--always an uncertain proposition. He keeps costs to a minimum by doing all the label labor himself, and he works out of an office that's located in one neatly kept corner of a large walk-in closet in his Loring Park apartment. Nevertheless, like more established local label legends Tom Hazelmyer and Woody McBride, Lindbloom has a reputation for being impeccable in his business practices: His artists always get paid--on time, even.

Meanwhile, Lindbloom has been raising his sights. The Music Ensemble was released in an edition of 1,000, Roaratorio's biggest by far. While he had to give up handmade art in order to accommodate the large numbers (the covers are printed this time), the CD does feature covers by jazz scene painter (and Daniel Carter's partner) Marilyn Sontag.

And what happened to Lindbloom's aunt, the one who got the ball rolling in the first place? (Not just with Lacy--she gave Lindbloom his first Velvet Underground album when he was in the ninth grade.)

"It's good to see her finally getting some recognition," Lindbloom observes. "I talked to her a couple weeks ago and she told me that she's been asked by Verve to do the cover for a new Lacy album. That's got to be the measure of some kind of success."

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