Empire of Doom
Behind the scenes of Hollywood’s one-man doom record label Southern Lord
by Jay Babcock
Originally published in the August 08, 2002 LAWeekly
The Lair of Doom lies on a Hollywood boulevard, upstairs from a Thai restaurant. There, above the ambulance sirens and Metro bus brake squeals rising like so many noxious sonic fumes from the street below, a single industrious man labors intently. Listen close, at almost any hour of the day or night, and you‘ll hear his hearty cackle and—something else: a strange clatter, like the rattle of bones in a plastic tumbler.
Actually, that’s just the sound of Greg Anderson, 32-year-old founder of Southern Lord Records and currently its sole employee, working the phone and tapping out e-mail.
“I‘m here all the time,” says the longhaired, affable Anderson, gazing lovingly at one of the sources of his endurance, a 72-ounce pitcher-bucket of Coke he’s constantly refilling at the 7-Eleven across the street. “But I‘m not looking for sympathy! This is what I like to do.”
What Southern Lord has been doing since its inception in April 1998 is “doom metal,” a certain species of heavy music whose ultimate ancestor is Black Sabbath. Basically it sounds like the product of a bunch of guys smoking a lot of pot and trying to play music slower than the Melvins: bands have names like WarHorse and Place of Skulls, albums have titles like As Heaven Turns to Ash and Supercoven. It’s low-end music for black-clad midnight masses.
But Southern Lord does more than doom metal (strictly defined). Another look at the Lord‘s roster reveals: Mondo Generator, a churning, rumbling post-SST racket led by Queens of the Stone Age/ex-Kyuss bassist Nick Oliveri; SUNN 0))), which features dark, massive guitar sludgework by Anderson and Southern Lord graphic designer Stephen O’Malley; and Khanate, an O‘Malley-led band that Anderson characterizes as “black metal on ludes—it’s got that same grim evilness.”
With recent releases by the latter two ensembles, Southern Lord has begun to attract attention from new quarters. Acclaimed Japanese avant-garde noise warlock Merzbow mixed two tracks on SUNN 0)))‘s latest record, Flight of the Behemoth; Julian Cope has been an outspoken public champion (he’s called the just-released Rampton by Southern Lord supergroup Teeth of Lions Rule the Divine “an endless ambient Ragnarok”); and SUNN 0))), much to their surprise, found themselves being profiled this past spring by influential British artsy-music magazine The Wire. A recent East Coast tour by Khanate was attended as much by drone seekers and experimental music aficionados as the usual collection of stoners and adventurous metalheads.
Doom, it seems, is everywhere.
What follows are the Ten Commandments of Doom: both a how-to list for would-be micro-label operators and the slightly abridged tale, told in his own words, of how Greg Anderson found his grim calling…and followed it to the bitter end.
1. HEED YOUR CALLING.
Right around the time I was getting into heavy rock—this is like 1982—there were all these seminars around Seattle about how rock music was evil. So I went to one of them. I found out about all this music that I didn‘t know about! I was like, “Who’s Alice Cooper?!” I walked out of there going, “Okay, these tapes are what I want for my birthday.”
My main influence is early Melvins—Buzz is my all-time hero!—and Earth. When they came out with Earth 2, it really struck a chord with me. I got to see them once in ‘91 or ’92. They played this small club, there were maybe 15 people there, it was just awesome. I think it‘s great when bands play excruciatingly loud. It’s like a two-part experience. You see the band, they‘re doing their thing, but you’re feeling the band, too. It‘s the same reason you may want to take drugs. You want to change your perception.
I look at playing SUNNO))) now, it’s like a body high. Having your body being enveloped by sound waves, especially droning low-end ones, is really massaging, especially if you‘re leaning against the cabinets. It’s like the drugs are almost an afterthought. I played an entire tour sober. We would invite the audience to come lay on the stage, while we were behind our wall of amps, lying down. After the set, I would be soooo relaxed.
2. I AM NORWEGIAN, HEAR ME RAAAARGH.
Stephen O‘Malley and I actually grew up in the same neighborhood and went to the same high school, but I was three years older. We became friends later, through mutual friends. We had all these mutual interests—he was a big Melvins fan too, and I really wanted to know more about death metal, and he was the guy. Steve and I formed Thorr’s Hammer with our friend Runhild Gammelsaeter, who was a death metalblack metal fan from Norway that was in Seattle on an exchange program. She was this gorgeous Norwegian teenager, but she sings-growls in this bellowing, guttural, superlow voice. Runhild was going back to Norway, so we had to cram everything in in two weeks—we recorded a demo, we played two shows. That‘s it. After that Steve and I did a band called Burning Witch together. Then I left Burning Witch to come to L.A. to play with the guys from the Obsessed, and we became Goatsnake.
3. PERFORM APPRENTICESHIPS.
When I moved to L.A. in ’96 from Seattle to do Goatsnake, I got a job at Aron‘s. I’ve never been treated worse in my life than at Aron‘s. Talk about a group of the most pretentious fucking people! Record store lackeys that are making like four dollars an hour, punching out for your 10-minute smoke breaks, they were a bunch of fucking losers, nothing going on musically or artistically. I almost gave up and moved back to Seattle. Ironically, the people that were the coolest to me at Aron’s were the people that had the most shit going on for them as musicians.
A friend got me a job at Caroline Distribution, answering phones, making copies, just crap. Stupid shit. But I got to hear all the music coming in from all the labels we distributed. It opened up a whole new world, and I was being exposed to it for free. I became friends with people at the different labels Caroline was dealing with, and so I learned from them how labels work. I moved up at Caroline, all the while doing music on the side with Goatsnake. Eventually I got tired of selling other people‘s records. Some of the stuff people were putting out, I was like, “Dude . . . I don’t wanna put my name behind this.” I held on for a while and then I decided to take a chance. Do my own thing.
4. SET MODEST, ATTAINABLE GOALS.
Burning Witch had continued on after I left, and they made a recording. And then eventually Steve came down here. Me and him were supposed to put out the Burning Witch and the Thorr‘s Hammer material with these other labels, and people just kept on flaking. A friend of ours who was really into this stuff, he was like, “You guys gotta put this out. I’ll give you the money, just pay me back.” And so we just did it. We just wanted to document it, get it out there.
5. MANIFEST THE BRAND: NAME, LOGO, IDENTITY.
Me and Steve would carry bottles of Southern Comfort around everywhere to parties and just get wasted. We were trying to think of a name for the label and I was just like, “Southern . . . Lord.”
Steve‘s a real amazing artist as far as like graphic design, and musically as well. His portfolio is sick. He’s done a lot of all the real famous Burzum covers, he‘s done Mayhem, Emperor. People love the designs. People want the package. Even if you’re not 100 percent into the music on the record, you buy it for the artwork.
The name Southern Lord doesn‘t really have much meaning, I just thought it sounded cool. Some people try to tie the label to this Satanic thing, and I’m like not really into that at all. I don‘t have any affinity to any sort of religion, really. I just put out this band called Place of Skulls, which is the guitar player from this old band called Pentagram, who were a pretty Satanic band. But his new band is Christian. They’re not blatant about it, they‘re just Christians. And people have been giving me shit: “What’s so evil about Place of Skulls, those guys are fucking Christians!” Well, I never claimed to be evil or Satanic.
People ask, “What is Southern Lord? Are you a stoner rock label? Are you a doom metal label? Are you a death metal label?” Our label puts out heavy, intense music, that‘s all. We’ve been lucky to escape the “stoner rock” label. Would you call Black Sabbath a stoner rock band? No. They‘re a heavy band. I just think labeling music in general is kinda silly. Sabbath are, for lack of a better word, the grandfathers of “doom metal,” but Melvins, St. Vitus, Trouble and Pentagram are just as important: They took Sabbath and fused it with more of a heavy metal thing, and that fusion comprises what I would call doom metal.
A lot of people think taking drugs and playing as slow as you can is what Southern Lord is about. Which it is—kind of.
6. MAINTAIN BRUTAL FOCUS.
Initially, I didn’t really have any goals beyond the Burning Witch and Thorr‘s Hammer records. And those two records did really good: We got distribution, people were into it, our money was coming a back. We were stoked. The guys from the Obsessed who had been playing with me in Goatsnake were like, “Hey man, there’s all this unreleased Obsessed stuff, if you wanna put it out.” We‘re like, yeah, there’s a great band that didn‘t really get a lot of exposure. And these really rare and unreleased tracks we were getting for this compilation were killer stuff. So we used the money from the first two releases and put out that third record. And then that did great.
The whole time that this is going on I’m in Goatsnake. The fourth release happened because we were over in Europe touring with Electric Wizard, and it was just like, “Man, this band is awesome, I wanna put out a record.” And so we did. That‘s how it kept going.
Thank God for Man’s Ruin existing so that I could see what not to do. Man‘s Ruin was a big inspiration. They were one of the first labels that was really putting out, and really supporting, the heavy music scene. Here’s a label that I thought was just brilliant as far as some of the releases, the artwork and everything. The respect that I have for [Man‘s Ruin owner] Frank Kozik is that he was really passionate about what he did, and he came from a real artist’s perspective. But he didn‘t know how to run a business. The main flaw was quality control. At one point, it was like if a band had even heard of Kyuss, Fu Manchu, or owned a Big Muff pedal, Man’s Ruin was gonna put it out. I was appalled at some of the shit he was putting out.
I‘m a fanatic about pretty much every song on every release. I wouldn’t put out a record and go, “Yeah, it‘s okay.” I want everything that I put out to have real quality. And I’m really proud that Southern Lord is starting to get a name for itself. There are a certain amount of people that we‘ve built as a following that are gonna buy our stuff, no matter what. They like my taste, and I don’t deviate too far. I‘ve done a few kinda different releases, but people were into it.
7. EMBRACE ALL MODES OF DISSEMINATION.
Our main distributor is Caroline, they account for about 70 to 80 percent of our sales in the U.S. And the rest go through smaller distributors in smaller quantities.
The Internet has definitely changed distribution. There’s all these cool people who are into this certain kind of music, and they‘ll sell it on their own Web sites and fill orders out of their bedroom. I’ll do a couple boxes of CDs consistently with them.
Our Web store accounts for a good percentage of our income. And of course I get tons of mail orders through my post office box. We do a 7-inch singles club, six a year, and those go like wildfire. I like to do vinyl for as many projects as I can, because I like the sound and the packaging, but it‘s expensive. And at the distributor level, my sales of vinyl have gone down so much. It’s mostly mail order for vinyl. If a band tours, that‘s where you can really sell it.
I deal directly with as many record stores as I can. People working at record stores, they like talking to labels anyways ’cause they wanna be able to get on the guest list when your bands are coming on tour, or to try to get the bands to come into the store and sign shit. So whenever I get an e-mail or a phone call from a store, they‘re like, “Uh, can we get a play copy or a poster?” I’m like, “How ‘bout dealing direct?” ’Cause that way they‘ll remember you, they’ll put up your posters, and you get the money immediately. You don‘t have to wait 90 days for your distributor to pay you, minus the returns, minus the charge-backs for advertising. Dealing direct is where you really make your connection with the store.
People come up to me all the time and say, “Don’t take this the wrong way, but when I first heard your record, I burned it from a friend—but then I went out and bought it! And I got a T-shirt too!” I love how people try to justify it with me. They wanna support the artist. Maybe if the first exposure is someone burns them a mix CD or they get something off the Internet, then that‘s the thing, they’re gonna go out and buy that, they‘re probably gonna go see the band in a club. They wanna go to the shows and pay. Because they know if that doesn’t happen, the artist ain‘t coming back down to their town. I think, at this level at least, that people can make that correlation.
8. ONLY ALLY WITH BANDS THAT ARE WILLING TO CONQUER.
With payment and royalties, it’s a profit split, 50-50 between the label and the bands. So I always tell bands, “I‘m gonna work hard. I need you guys to do the same, because we’re both splitting the money. So if you guys don‘t tour, if you don’t go out there and self-promote, if you don‘t do all this stuff that you should be doing to get your name out there, then the record’s not gonna sell” and I might not do another record with them. I do a certain job and I expect the bands to do a certain job. I‘m responsible for everything, and I try not to fuck up. I think bands can see that. You don’t have to go through five people to get your answer. It‘s me, and I’ll tell you straight up what the answer is.
How do I do it? I stopped smoking pot. I‘ve been playing music less and less, and doing this more and more. ’Cause this is what pays the bills, you know. It‘s been a curse for my social life. I don’t hang out with my friends very much anymore. But it‘s a choice I’ve made. Working for myself, that‘s all I’ve ever wanted to do, whether it‘s selling soap or selling doom records.
I’m not trying to sound pretentious when I say this, but I come from a punk rock background. I was in my own band when I was 15, put out my own tapes, got in the fuckin‘ Pinto and toured the West Coast. I grew up, learning that. I notice when I work with bands at Southern Lord that come from that same school of thinking, or they at least respect and know that, things are gonna go well. But when I’m dealing with people who have no idea about that, it‘s like a whole different world.
Mostly what I see with Hollywood and Los Angeles are a lot of these bands that are made up of either failed actors or these dudes that are just watching MTV and that’s all they know about music, and they start these bands. They‘re like, “Okay, the acting thing, I’m not getting very many phone calls on that, so I‘m gonna do a band, we’re gonna be, like, heavy, you know, like Limp Bizkit . . .” There are so many bands in L.A. that have that mindset. Sure, there‘s a chance that they’re gonna get signed by some fucking shitty major label, sign away their lives for $150,000, and that‘s it. That’s definitely not what I‘m about.
It’s funny: One of the greatest labels of all time, SST, they‘re not from Hollywood, but they’re from around here. That‘s kind of the whole thing about Los Angeles: You’ve got the worst shit you’ve ever seen in your life and you’ve got some of the best shit you’ve ever seen in your life.
9. LEARN FROM YOUR ERRORS.
I learn something all the time. I got caught with my pants down at the end of last year because I hadn’t put anything out from March until October, so I didn‘t have any cash flow happening. I learned it’s really good to put a record out at least every two months. But I also have to limit how many records I put out. Once you put out too many records, you can‘t take care of all the bands: Shit starts falling through the cracks. If you’ve got a priority, you can‘t even treat it that way ’cause you‘ve got so much manufacturing debt from pressing up five records a month.
I usually know how many a record’s gonna sell when I put it out, which is cool ‘cause then I can budget correctly. Some things have broken out and surprised me, which is really cool. We put out this record by this Japanese band Boris that’s basically a 50-minute-plus song of pure guitar dronefeedback. We sold 2,100 copies of that record! And that to me is a success, because I didn‘t think anyone was gonna understand it.
10. KNOW THAT THE INTERNET IS YOUR SPECIAL FRIEND WITH STRANGE AND WONDERFUL POWERS.
The Internet is extremely important. It’s almost eliminated the flyer; it‘s become the flyer. Instead of us sending out fliers in the mail, or people passing around fliers in the underground metal scene like they have in the past, now people just log on to the Web site. We keep it updated with information about new releases, bands being on the road, stuff like that. Right now we’ve got a sample from pretty much every release on there. If I could get enough space on my site, I might make a band‘s entire album free to download.
Caroline does a lot of promotion, and I have a press person in New York who does a damn good job. I don’t do any radio promotion, ‘cause a lot of the stuff I put out, the songs are too long for radio, and unless you got a lot of money, and you’ve got some radio dude working on the phones, it‘s not worth it.
A weird array of people are into what we’re doing. Adventurous metalheads, they wanna hear something different than Cannibal Corpse or your generic black metal. There‘s a lot of kinda like artsy people, who are into The Wire magazine, Alternative Press, shit like that. Experimental people. And hardcore kids. And Julian Cope! What he wrote was like the greatest thing I’ve ever read in my life! That‘s probably the whole reward of this: being surprised when somebody actually gets it.