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Riding High on the Crest of the Creek

A conversation with Saddle Creek Record's Robb Nansel and Jason Kulbel.

story by tim mcmahan



Lazy-i: March 9, 2005


Read about the origins of Saddle Creek Records in this 2001 Lazy-i interview with Robb Nansel.

When last we spoke to Robb Nansel and Jason Kulbel back in August 2001, the dynamic duo that runs Saddle Creek Records was operating out of a ratty little converted apartment in South Omaha.

Saddle Creek was smack-dab in the middle of its salad years. The label had just celebrated a little victory with Bright Eyes' Fevers and Mirrors CD selling an unheard of 10,000 copies -- an achievement that seemed impossible back when it all began in 1993 with the release of Conor Oberst's cassette, Water -- back when the label was called Lumberjack Records.

By 2001, Creek's stable of artists had grown to include what would become its "Big Three" -- Bright Eyes, Cursive and The Faint -- along with smaller selling acts Son, Ambulance, Azure Ray, Now It's Overhead and Sorry About Dresden.

Surprisingly, the label has grown little since then. Beep Beep, a sassy, sexy, slightly obscene punk band that released its debut, Business Casual, in 2004, is Saddle Creek's latest acquisition and the only one that doesn't have direct ties with other existing Creek acts.

Broken Spindles, which has released two records on Saddle Creek, is a side project of Faint bassist Joel Petersen. Mayday, a side project of Cursive guitarist Ted Stevens, released its debut on Creek in 2002 (its follow-up, however, came out on Bar/None, though the next Mayday CD is again slated for Saddle Creek). Stevens' pal, Cursive frontman Tim Kasher, also has a side project with The Good Life. Both Stevens' and Kasher's extracurricular activities could become full-time gigs with Cursive's announcement late last year that the band is on indefinite hiatus.

Meanwhile, two other bands came and went -- Los Angeles' Rilo Kiley, who released one record on Saddle Creek before leaving for bigger things at Warner Bros., and Desaparecidos, a side project of Bright Eyes' Conor Oberst that released two CDs before calling it quits early in 2004 (though rumor has it that a new Desaparecidos recording could surface eventually).

That makes a measly total of 12 bands on Saddle Creek, but it's been more than enough for the label to become one of the most talked about and respected indie rock enterprises in the United States.



Saddle Creek's march to indie prominence began with the August 2001 release of The Faint's Danse Macabre. Hailed as a return to '80s No Wave dance greatness, the CD landed the band an opening slot on No Doubt's 2002 national tour -- a huge leap forward for a band that only a year before had been playing down at Sokol Underground, capacity 320. Danse Macabre would be the label's first real hit, but is only now on the verge of selling its 100,000th copy.

Next came Bright Eyes' Lifted or the Story Is in the Soil Keep Your Ear to the Ground. Released in August 2002, the folk-rock LP exceeded 100,000 in sales in little over a year and galvanized Conor Oberst's reputation as "the new Dylan," whether he likes it or not.

Cursive, which has garnered a reputation as this generation's Fugazi thanks to years of touring, finally joined the Saddle Creek 100,000 Club with The Ugly Organ, released in March 2003.

But it would be Bright Eyes' duo releases of I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning and Digital Ash in a Digital Urn that would change everything for the label. In a bold move, both full-lengths were released on the same day, Jan. 25 of this year, amidst an avalanche of press. For a month leading up to the release, you couldn't open a newspaper or magazine without seeing Conor Oberst's dour, pouty face hidden behind a head of shaggy hair.

The tidal wave of press and critical accolades resulted in Wide Awake clocking in at No. 10 in the Billboard charts for its first week of sales, moving 56,167 units, while Digital Ash made No. 15 on the chart with 45,736 units scanned. Weeks later, both CDs would each break the 100,000 mark.

You think managing a potential gold record and a stable of artists would be enough of a challenge for Nansel and Kulbel, but no.

Early in 2004, Oberst launched his own record label, Team Love, with New York associate Nate Krenkel. So far, their releases include debuts by Omaha tap-dance phenoms Tilly and the Wall, Martha's Vinyard singer-songwriter Willy Mason, and Omaha hip-hop act Mars Black. And plans call for releasing a solo project by Jenny Lewis, the frontwoman of Saddle Creek defectors Rilo Kiley. Creek is partners with Oberst on Team Love, handling distribution and online sales.

Then there's Slowdown, the long talked-about music hall/bar/office space that was to be owned and operated by Saddle Creek. The proposed location -- 1528 N. Saddle Creek Road -- was deep in the heart of the sleepy Metcalf Park, whose neighbors simply weren't going to stand for it. Faced with vocal opposition from the neighborhood association, Saddle Creek dropped the $1.5 million project late last year.

How has the label managed to grow from a bedroom business to an industry leader, and where does it go from here? To find out, we talked with Kulbel and Nansel over coffee at the mid-town Wild Oats, just a few blocks from Saddle Creek's new headquarters off 75th and Cass.

Interviewing the tight-lipped duo is like playing Texas Hold 'em with a pair of convicts who've gone "all in" with their paroles. Start-off questions like "What's been your key to success?" and "Is indie music the hot new trend" were met with laughs, silence and stares. But after the coffee kicked in, our reticent entrepreneurs began to open up.























"A guy sent us a copy of the article and a letter full of expletives, and a copy of Wide Awake in a ziplock baggie that he pulverized."



Since we talked last, you haven't really added that many new artists to your roster. What are the prerequisites to becoming a Saddle Creek band?

Robb Nansel: I don't know. We've talked about that a lot lately. The prerequisite used to be that the band had to be friends with us. I think everyone's gotten comfortable with the idea of expanding beyond that and putting out records from bands outside the circle. But we don't have an active A&R department, so no one is out seeking talent. We haven't come across anything, and we don't have time to devote to it.

Jason Kulbel: The bands themselves have always been our A&R department, through touring and meeting other bands on the road. That model doesn't work anymore because the bands are choosing who they're touring with now. Conor knows everyone that comes on the road with him.

So how will you find new talent?

Nansel: The best source is friends at other labels who have passed on a recording that didn't fit for them. You listen to it over and over again and try to see what they saw in it in the first place. Other demos we listen to once and throw away.

Kulbel: There are a lot of bands around like Ladyfinger, Neva Dinova and Criteria. I guess we don't feel like we have to put out all the local bands' CDs. There's room for bands to be on other labels, and for other labels to start up. I like Ladyfinger and going to Criteria shows, we just don't put out their records.

We do have a light release schedule this year, but at the same time pretty much from late last summer until right now it's been brutal. We don't need another band right now. It's a full load putting out two Bright Eyes records. That said, I don't see another Bright Eyes record coming out in 2006, maybe a b-sides collection. There probably won't be a Cursive record, and probably not a Faint record. We need to get some new bands.

Conor Oberst said that one of the reasons he created Team Love Records was because of the glacial pace of Saddle Creek's decision-making process. He pointed to M. Ward and Tilly and the Wall as examples. Is that slow process an issue with how the label operates?

Kulbel: M. Ward needed a label and we talked about it amongst ourselves for a couple months. It took longer than reasonable for Matt to hear back from us. I would have said no if I were Matt, too. It's just a superslow process of everyone getting comfortable with releasing something new.

Nansel: Prior to Team Love, Conor brought dozens of records through that he thought were great. We didn't have the manpower to release all of them whether we liked them or not. It was suggested that if he wanted to put out all these records, he should have a label.

Kulbel: The five or six records he's putting out are the same ones that he would have brought to Saddle Creek.

Oberst said Team Love is "in the family." What is Creek's relationship with Team Love exactly?

Nansel: They pay their manufacturing bills. We keep an eye on the inventory. It's the same set up that Merge has with Touch and Go. It's not a significant amount of money from a financial standpoint, but I think when we agreed to do this with Conor, we felt we were opening up the floodgates to have this be a part of our business. Team Love wouldn't be the only label we would sub-distribute. We could see taking on other labels.

Kulbel: At the end of the day, Team Love records are something that's part of our distribution. Anything Team Love puts out, we distribute, so our distributor (ADA) has to as well.

Operationally, how has the company changed? Before, it was just Robb and Jason, and a few others pitching in. How many people work for Creek and what do they do?

Kulbel: We have seven full timers. Mike Brown does accounting, Jadon Ulrich does graphics, Matt Maginn does retail stuff, Christina Harding handles international, Jeff Tafolla handles online orders and distributors that we take care of in-house, and Robb and I do interviews (laughs).

Did you ever think you'd have to deal with personnel and HR issues when you started this up?

Nansel: We never thought of that. Mike is now looking into 401K stuff for everyone. We even provide health insurance.

Were you surprised at the amount of press Bright Eyes received for these two releases?

Kulbel: January is a good time to release a record. People are looking to write about 'the new thing,' especially with the big names not releasing CDs until March and April. But the stories would have been written anyway. It's Bright Eyes, two records, there were so many variables. But it still seemed like a ton of press to me. It's Radiohead-level press. The only thing we didn't get was a really big cover, Spin or Rolling Stone.

Were you caught off guard by first-week sales? I heard that some Best Buy stores ran out of CDs on the first day.

Nansel: We never ran out of CDs, but there was a 48-hour delay in getting some stock to some of the bigger accounts. We didn't expect them to ship as many as they did. On the day the CDs came out, later that day, there was a huge mass of reorders from Best Buy and other big accounts because they had sold through their stock. They wiped us out of everything that week. We had stuff in the pipeline that came through. None of the actual stores suffered; some of the middle warehousing systems were caught off guard for a day.

Kulbel: Matt (Maginn) said ADA (Saddle Creek's distributor) was physically out of stock for six hours until a shipment came in later that day. Best Buy never ran out here. I never heard of anyone not being able to buy one.

Nansel: I did, but the CD was back in stock the next day. Best Buy was overnighting stores. I don't know how accurate those reports were. We were surprised at Best Buy's price of $7.99. I thought it would be $8.99. That's cheap.

How do you keep the momentum going for the records?

Nansel: You don't sustain at the level that it's at right now. Sales will dip over the next few weeks and hopefully level off until the next tour. The only thing that would get it back up would be commercial airplay, and we've already exceeded what we thought we'd sell without radio.

Would you consider courting radio?

Nansel: Ultimately, it's whatever Conor wants to do. If he wants to focus his efforts at radio, he has to play at their weenie roast parties. If you don't play their games, they don't play your record. It would be great if they broke from traditional methods and played it just because they like it.

What are the biggest challenges in dealing with a potential gold-record level release?

Kulbel: It's changed a few of our thought processes. We have to play with the big boys more, which is annoying. This is the first time we did retail programs with Best Buy and Target. These things cost insane amounts of money.

Nansel: You have to meet the demand, I guess. The artist is choosing to do the Vote for Change tour and playing larger rooms. From a retail perspective you have to go on a similar path. You can't play in 20,000-seat arenas with Bruce Springsteen and not have CDs at Best Buy. It would be a lost opportunity.

Speaking of Conor's touring, did you have any fallout from his recent comments about Texas? (In Fort Worth recently, Oberst reportedly told a sold-out audience, "I don't know if you know this, but I hate your (expletive) state. I'd put a (expletive) gun to my head before I'd live in your state.")

Kulbel: I got 10 hate e-mails which said I won't listen to anything from Conor or your label again. A guy sent us a copy of the article and a letter full of expletives, and a copy of Wide Awake in a ziplock baggie that he pulverized. It was in a thousand pieces. He must have hit it 100 times. There was nothing left of it.

We don't think it's funny. Conor always says what he thinks at shows. I'm anxious to hear what he actually said. We'll find out because we have tapes of all the shows.

Nansel: I know there are other things he said after that. He talked about his favorite people from Texas. That stuff never makes it into the story. It's never great to alienate your fans and piss them off.



In terms of supporting records, does the label take a different approach toward its smaller-selling bands like Mayday or Son, Ambulance vs. The Big Three (Cursive, BE, The Faint)?

Kulbel: The general principals are the same. If you put out a Cursive record, there's a lot more demand and a lot more time needed to be spent on it. We mail out to the same number of stores, but we might send a few more trinkets with Bright Eyes.

Nansel: With the big bands, it's more time-consuming, but it's almost easier. With Mayday and Son Ambulance records, you have to convince people to devote time to them. They're already willing to devote time to a new Bright Eyes record.

When we talked in 2001, Robb said he was just scraping by financially. The perception by some is that Creek is now rolling in dough and that a few of you might even be millionaires. How much jack are you making?

Nansel: There's more money coming in now, but there's more money going out, too. We're paying seven people and the place we rent is three times as big. This last month was the most worried I've been about money. We don't have any. We spent it all on Bright Eyes records and ads and publicists. We have less money now than we've ever had. Granted, it will be coming in.

Kulbel: There's this huge lead-time on stuff. You shell out money for CDs, programs and to get bands on the road. All of that comes back four to six months later. Every indie label goes through that. You bankrupt yourself for a few months. It's not like we have a few hundred dollars in our bank account, but we couldn't put out a Cursive record, either.

How about personally?

Nansel: We all just kind of live our lives the way we always have. I mean, I don't worry about having to pay my rent for my apartment, but we're not flush. We're not out buying Escalades.

Kulbel: I bought a house last year, but I would have bought the same house if I worked here at Wild Oats.

Let's talk about Slowdown, your office building/bar/music venue project. It's been reported that you had the votes from the City Council for the liquor license but pulled the plug because of neighborhood concerns. True?

Kulbel: One council man said, 'I will vote for you, but I'm not doing you a favor by putting you in that neighborhood. You'll get in there and they'll smash their own cars just to have something bad to say about you.'

Nansel: (A councilman) said whether any of that stuff is done or not, political pressures will force them to do something about it.

Kulbel: If we would have gone in there, we would have been friends with the neighborhood. We would have made it work. But there was an outside chance that there was a group that would ride us until we lost our license. That probably would have been the end of the label, too. We could have tried to sell the bar, but who wants to buy a bar where you can't get a liquor license?

During the City Council meeting, a number of council men pledged that they would help Creek find a new location for Slowdown. Has that happened and what's the future of the project?

Nansel: They want us to do it. We haven't struck a deal, but we talked a lot about potential locations. I think we're all planning on it still happening, it's just a matter of when and where.

I've heard a downtown location suggested, just west of the Qwest Center.

Kulbel: That's one of many. There's land in a lot of places. We sat down with the city; they said this and this and this. You can build here and here. But everything has its drawback. We're really picky. We're kind of beyond picky.

But the project is still alive?

Nansel: It's very much alive. It'll happen. I'm not telling you where, though.

Kulbel: We have a location in mind. It's in the city limits of Omaha, Nebraska. I'm not going to cross the river.

Nansel: I would bet that the process would happen this year.

Kulbel: I would love it if it did.

Coming out of that process with the city, it seemed that few people outside of the music fans knew about Saddle Creek and what it does. Is that a concern?

Kulbel: It was surprising, but I don't know why we would expect people to know.

Nansel: The Omaha World-Herald has written a hundred articles about our label and no one knows about it. Then they write an article about these dirty punks that are going to open this club and suddenly everyone knows us. Why did that article get so much attention?

Kulbel: People don't want to hear about a success story. They want to hear about a couple 29- and 31-year-old-guys, kids trying to open this bar. I thought people were more open-minded than that. That first neighborhood meeting wasn't even civilized.

Doesn't the national media's focus on the so-called "Omaha scene" really end with Saddle Creek and not other local bands?

Kulbel: The national press is going to focus on what's popular nationally. Just because there's a great band in Omaha that plays in Omaha, why should they pay attention to them in a publication that has national distribution and a national audience? Why should they write about them? None of their readers want to read about them. Neva Dinova is out touring, and as a result, their press has gotten better and better. I do think (the national articles) are usually focused on Omaha and Saddle Creek. These reporters come to town for 48 hours and try to talk to every band on the label, that takes up most of their time.

Nansel: We can't even get those reporters to write about our bands. They come here to write about Bright Eyes and The Faint and Conor's mom.

You said your original goal was to sell 10,000 copies of a record, which you did with Fevers and Mirrors. So what's your next goal?

Kulbel: There are a lot of things going through my head that would be nice if they happen. People will say we've got a gold record coming. That's not a goal, though it would be cool if it happened.

Nansel: We're in a pretty cool position right now. We've had some successful records. This is where we wanted to be. As long as we can continue to maintain what we have, that'd be cool. That's so boring isn't it? I guess everyone expects you to want to be bigger and better.

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Originally published in The Omaha Reader March 9, 2005. Copyright 2005 Tim McMahan. All rights reserved.












"I don't worry about having to pay my rent for my apartment, but we're not flush. We're not out buying Escalades."