Saddle Creek Records World Headquarters is
a modest little townhouse tucked away in a mid-town south Omaha
neighborhood of converted military housing. Label chief Robb Nansel sat
surrounded by stacks of cardboard boxes, piles of CDs, envelopes, rock
posters, powerbooks, PCs, stereo equipment, promo pics, postcards and one
sheets. It's the trappings of a do-it-yourself indie label lifestyle that
began with the company's birth in 1993, back when Nansel still held
rockstar dreams as a musician in Commander Venus, the precursor to the
label's bedrock band, Bright Eyes.
Saddle Creek has grown from a tape-releasing upstart founded by Conor
and Justin Oberst (then called Lumberjack Records) to a recognized arbiter
of indie rock good taste. The roster includes some the nation's most
renowned indie bands: Bright Eyes, Cursive, The Faint, and Son, Ambulance,
all proud sons of Nebraska's river city. Now with a string of new releases
from a slew of non-Omaha-resident bands -- Athens, Georgia's Azure Ray and
Now It's Overhead, and Chapel Hill, North Carolina's Sorry About Dresden
-- the label appears poised to become a Midwestern version of SubPop or
Nansel talked about the label, its origins and its plans for the
How did all this get started?
Nansel: When I was in college in Lincoln with Mike Mogis, we felt
we should try to make a label out of the releases we had, including the
Lullaby for the Working Class vinyl records, the Commander Venus/Drip
7-inch, and various Cursive records. We also wanted to put out Bright
Eyes' A Collection of Songs Written and Recorded 1995-1997 CD,
which was the first release after we changed the name from Lumberjack to
At the time, Cursive was trying to get signed, Lullaby was working on
its Bar None stuff, and The Faint was becoming a band and needed a label.
We said 'Let's just do it ourselves.'
How did you select the bands that you work with?
When we started, there was Slowdown Virginia, Norman Bailer and
Commander Venus. Now it's Bright Eyes, Cursive and The Faint. The bands
have been touring for five years and have become friends with a lot of
different people. We met Andy LeMaster (from Now It's Overhead) on the
road. He's a good friend of ours. It was logical to put out his record
when it was ready. We don't put out music from people we donít know.
Is Son, Ambulance the label's first "expansion team"?
We don't consider Son, Ambulance an expansion team. Joe (Knapp, the
driving force behind the band) lived with Conor and had always been
around. Conor was the fuel behind that fire. We got together and had a
little meeting and talked about it. He wanted to do the Oh Holy Fools
Bright Eye/Son, Ambulance split, and once we heard it, we knew we needed
to put out.
All the songwriters -- Ted Stevens of Lullaby for the Working Class,
Tim Kasher of Cursive and The Good Life, Conor Oberst of Bright Eyes, and
Todd Baechle of The Faint -- are grandfathered in. They have free reign to
put out whatever they want. They're always curious about what everyone
thinks, and everyone has a say about what they like or donít like. Mike
(Mogis) has a lot to do with setting up the flow of the albums. By the
time the recording session is done and headed to master, he usually has an
idea of what makes a good track order.
What about Azure Ray and Sorry About Dresden? How did they get in the
Azure Ray consists of Orenda Fink and Maria Taylor, who are really good
friends with Andy LeMaster and also play in Now It's Overhead. Conor had
been down in Athens hanging out with that crew, heard their record and
brought it back. Everyone liked it. That was followed by a Bright Eyes
west coast tour that also included Crooked Fingers. Over that tour, Ted,
Conor and the Azure Ray girls got comfortable with each other. We told
them we'd love to work with them. The EP should be out in January at the
Sorry About Dresden's CD is out Oct. 23. The band (lead by Conor's
brother, Matt Oberst) still lives in Chapel Hill. They viewed working with
us as an opportunity. They'll do some dates with Cursive in October along
How do you time your releases?
We spread them out as much as we can. We try to have full artwork
copies in hand three months before the release date to get to the
magazines with ridiculous lead times, like any of the major glossies.
We have a database of magazine writers we hit first -- all the writers
for national magazines and freelance writers. It's a list we developed
over time with the help of other bands. A few weeks later, we send the CD
to a bunch of weeklies that donít need as much lead time. The CD usually
hits college radio a couple weeks before the release date; we check with
radio promoters for their schedules. Finally we send it out to web 'zines.
The goal is to have all the press hit right at the time of release.
How well has this been working?
We've had a decent amount of success, considering we're learning on our
own. With this Faint record, we hired a publicity agency -- Girlie Action
-- due to our sheer volume of releases -- five records between late July
and October. It's just unfeasible to do all that work on all those
releases with a staff of two. And The Faint's record is going to be more
demanding than most.
People are more prone to write about our bands now. Spin did a
review of Oh Holy Fools; Alternative Press is doing a review
of the new Son, Ambulance record. Those are things we couldn't have done
three years ago.
Who helps with the chores?
Jason Kulbel is the other person at the label. Roger Lewis (of The Good
Life) helps with press, and people drop by all the time. Ted Stevens has
been coming by lately to stuff records.
The bands were more involved with the label when it started. How did it
happen that you became the label's leader?
As the bands became more active and did more band-like things, someone
had to take over on the business side. Over time, there's become more of a
division between the record label and the bands. But the original idea
about the collective is still there.
When I graduated from college, I moved back to Omaha and Mike Mogis
stayed in Lincoln with the studio (now called Presto). I took the skills I
developed from making album covers to get a job at Orent Graphics doing
design. For a year I worked on the label from when I woke up until 1:45
p.m., then worked at Orent until 10 at night. In July 1999 I just couldn't
deal with it anymore and quit my job.
So does it pay the bills?
I live. I don't put any money into savings.
How do you judge the success of the label?
My goals change all the time. When Mike and I started the label, my
goal was to sell 10,000 copies of a record. With Fevers and Mirrors,
we've done that. Now the goal is to be able to put out whatever we want
whenever we want. I'm happy with the way things are. It would be nice to
eventually have more help so that we wouldn't have to work ridiculous
hours and run things out of our houses.
What about the idea of selling bands to larger labels?
I don't like what major labels do -- how they operate and don't support
their bands. Why would we want to be a farm club?
How long do you see yourself doing this?
As long as the bands can continue to be successful and can continue to
grow. I don't think we'll be doing this forever. If it happens, it would
be great. Most of us are going to be involved in music in some way. It's
what we know and love, whether it's Todd playing with The Faint when he's
45 or me filling mail orders when I'm 45.
Published in The Omaha Weekly August 15, 2001. Copyright ©
McMahan. All rights reserved.