When beloved indie record store Amoeba Music launched its own label in January, it did so with surprisingly little fanfare. You'd think a nationally lauded string of shops offering regular free in-store shows, as well as an annual gig featuring its employees' vastly ranging musical endeavors would be praised once again for creating another platform to support underappreciated independent musicians. But it turns out the quiet announcement (made by e-mail, in fact) mirrors the label's low-profile mix of early releases: a handful of Gypsy jazz titles (featuring artists like Brandi Shearer, David Grisman, and the Stephane Wrembel Trio) to complement an unreleased Gram Parsons live album.
For Amoeba's owners and employees, the unexpected choice was, as usual, fully expected. "It's something that maybe people haven't thought of, and that's us," explains co-owner Karen Pearson. "We're not going to do the next cookie-cutter thing."
The label's initial catalogue actually isn't terribly surprising, if you consider the three owners' tastes and connections. Marc Weinstein, drummer for experimentalists MX-80, is a self-proclaimed jazz lover; Dave Prinz is a guitarist and Gypsy jazz enthusiast; and Joe Goldmark, a renowned pedal steel player, has played on several records with Jim Campilongo, who has an upcoming project slated for the label.
The idea for Amoeba Records had come up several times over the years, but always wound up on the back burner. "Like anything Amoeba, it's all been very organic and somewhat spontaneous if the right time hits at the right time," Pearson explains. Last summer, Prinz "fell in love" with guitarist Wrembel, who wound up playing four in-store shows at Amoeba's Hollywood branch.
To celebrate the launch, some flagship bands embarked on the "Gypsy Caravan" tour in late January, stopping at Bimbo's in San Francisco, the Mystic Theatre in Petaluma, and the Rio Theatre in Santa Cruz not exactly the kinds of places that draw the young'uns. So will focusing on a niche genre that typically attracts an older crowd alienate Amoeba's legions of young, hip record buyers? "It's not my bag, but good for them," says Nicholas Friesen, 23, a lanky guy browsing the Berkeley branch's vinyl on a late Monday afternoon with an armful of records, including Heavy Vegetable and the Wedding Present. "It seems like they would [release] something rock or punk," adds Jen Wydro, 26, while shopping for Belle & Sebastian CDs. "This is such an alternative, punky place."
Actually, that's exactly why the label opted to avoid punky, alternative stuff initially. "Say our first endeavor was indie or electronic I think it would have been much more of a statement and defined us and limited us, whereas this isn't," Pearson explains. "You can imagine the politics, all the debate. This is beyond that to me."
Pearson isn't alone. Some of Amoeba's employees, too, waxed enthusiastic about their company's choice for its new venture. "I'm glad it's not anything shockingly contemporary," says Lynne Brady, a 38-year-old manager at the SF store, who grew up on AC/DC and Led Zeppelin. "There's a ton of people trying to pull the pop hits."
For now, many Amoeba shoppers still aren't aware of the label, and that, too, is very much by design "We are not going out in the world talking up the label, because we are letting it evolve and find its direction," Pearson explains. Meanwhile, Amoeba employees have their own ideas for the next band to sign: "My own," suggests Dean Santomieri, 53, who has worked in the classical department at the Berkeley store since it opened in 1990 and has released a CD of his hybrid spoken-word/music/video project. "I don't know what direction the label will go, but I wouldn't be surprised if a cool indie band showed up, or a hip-hop band."
"The beauty of Amoeba is having an open environment," Pearson concludes. "You are going to have talk 'We should have done this.' I think that's really healthy."
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