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Interview: Saddle Creek Records mogul Robb Nansel 

by tim mcmahan






Check out the more recent March 2005 Lazy-i interview with Saddle Creek's Robb Nansel and Jason Kulbel.  






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 Matador.

Nansel talked about the label, its origins and its plans for the future.

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 Saddle Creek.

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 mix?

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 earliest.

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 with Desaparecidos.

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.

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Published in The Omaha Weekly August 15, 2001. Copyright © 2001 Tim McMahan. All rights reserved.