The Oral History of Matador Records, Part Two
With the release of Pavement’s Slanted And Enchanted and Liz Phair’s Exile In Guyville, Matador had established themselves as one of the most talked about indie labels in the world. (Phair even ended up on the cover of Rolling Stone, as seen above.) But, by the mid-’90s, Cosloy and Lombardi found themselves wondering what to do with such attention.
While many scene tastemakers rolled their eyes and moved onto the next “it” label, Matador attempted to enter the mainstream for real. They signed deals with major labels like Atlantic—and, later, Capitol—while expanding their roster to include everything from underground hip-hop to Japanese art-pop to pioneering post-punk.
And the result was, well, one of the most confusing periods in Matador’s history.
Liz Phair: It’s probably safe to say that friends of Matador bands are a lot of the people who’ve been ripping me to shreds [ever since Exile in Guyville]. But the Matador guys were always supportive. They never made me feel bad and never made fun of what I was trying to make happen.
Bob Nastanovich, percussionist/hype man for Pavement: I can’t compare them to anyone but [beloved Chicago indie] Drag City [which released several early Pavement singles]. But where Drag City sort of stayed the same, Matador always had a bigger feel about it. We were fortunate to latch onto what we thought was the hip new thing. The right place to be.
Gerard Cosloy, co-founder of Matador: [Those timesl] were very much fueled by the post-Nirvana explosion, where for the first time bands that were considered graduates of the American indie-rock circuit were beginning to sell tremendous numbers of records. Labels were all looking for the next big whatever, and in the shape of Matador they had a sort of built-in repository for that stuff.
Nastanovich: At some point [after the success of us and Liz Phair], they were being courted by more majors than we were, to be honest.
Danny Goldberg, former president of Atlantic Records: Atlantic had a weak roster when I got there in terms of alternative rock—or whatever you wanna call it. I think The Lemonheads were the closest thing to get on college radio. And one of the main reasons I was hired was to expand the roster. Kim Gordon and Thurston Moore from Sonic Youth are two of the smartest people I know in regards to their judgment of rock culture. They both told me that Matador was the best independently owned label.
So I called Gerard, and we had a few meetings. They were going through a period where they needed money. They didn’t want their artists to feel like there was a ceiling at Matador. You have to remember that this was at a time when there was a real difference in promotional ability between the majors and the indies.
Cosloy: The first two records we did through Atlantic were [English post-punk group] The Fall and [New York noise rockers] Unsane. I think that pretty much says it all right there. If you wanna look up “suicidal” in the dictionary, there’s a little photo of me and Chris next to the word. But we thought, “Hey, we love The Fall. Why shouldn’t the entire world be into it?”
Chris Lombardi, fellow co-founder of Matador: I couldn’t even believe that I was in London at this hotel lobby meeting with [Fall frontman] Mark E. Smith and offering him a record deal. This was one of my heroes.
Cosloy: Making the deal with Atlantic enabled us to build up our infrastructure, sign more people, extend bands contracts and give people more money to record. As far as selling records through Atlantic, that wasn’t nearly so easy. It was a big, big company that was just too unwieldy for us to sift our way through.
Lombardi: I think both our [major-label] experiences were a little rocky because the people we did the deals with moved onto other companies. And your relationship is only as long as the contract of the guy who’s there.
Cosloy: The Atlantic thing came to an end when that company, being a publicly held company, began making all sorts of changes at the top. Danny left for Warner Bros. Doug Morris, who helped make the deal, left Time Warner for Universal. And the new regime at Atlantic weren’t so enamored by Matador and pretty much said, “Look, there’s gotta be a way we can work this out.” And, weirdly enough, that’s when the Capitol deal happened.
Lombardi: With Capitol there was a little bit more pressure to make our year-end numbers. There was a big change in the music business at that moment. It was really urban-oriented, and Capitol had not invested any money in that. We went through a weird transitional period around 1999 where we put out some different music [and] we got into underground hip-hop for some reason. [We] decided to give it a go. That was kind of a failure for us on a business level.
Damian “Pink Eyes” Abraham, frontman for Fucked Up: There’ve been some spotty signings, sometimes to the label’s detriment. I was thinking there needs to be a “Matador, Really?” festival in Reno featuring [the label's hip-hop artists] Non Phixion, MC Paul Barman and The Fall. Like—really, guys? You thought that was gonna work out?
Lombardi: Pizzicato Five? I don’t even know. [Former marketing director] Christina [Zafiris] worked at CMJ, then worked for us and brought in a VHS of their videos from Japan. I can’t even remember how we reached out to them. It was just one of those things where we were like, “Wow, this is kind of wacky and weirdly stylish and very Japanese.” And they were like, “Cool.” Then we also had Cornelius and Guitar Wolf—three bands from Japan.
At the dawn of the ’90s, Matador all but defined indie rock as most fans knew it. But by the close of the decade, they weren’t even quite sure how to define themselves. What would come of the label in the next decade?
Click here to read part three.Tags : Chris Lombardi, Christina Zafiris, Cornelius, Damian Abraham, Danny Goldberg, Doug Morris, Exile In Guyville, Fucked Up, Guitar Wolf, Kim Gordon, Liz Phair, Mark E. Smith, MC Paul Barman, Nirvana, Non Phixion, Pavement, Slanted and Enchantment, The Breeders, The Fall, The Lemonheads, The Pixies, Unsane
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