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Brave Combo

Betting on a Fast Horse: Barrett Martin, Matt Pence, Peter Buck, Joe Cripps and Thomas Jones during the CeDell Davis recording session in January at Dan's Bar
Judy Walgren

Joe Cripps sits on the porch of his house near Argyle, a sweaty glass of Maker's Mark at his feet, a pile of dusty 45s by his side. It's early evening in early May and the sun is setting on the home he shares with his girlfriend Ashley, their dogs B.J. and Cornbread (who is lying like a welcome mat near the front steps) and a mountain of percussion instruments. He has everything from the standard-issue drum kit just outside the kitchen to much more exotic fare picked up during his trips to Cuba and Brazil and elsewhere in search of a good beat, the kind of stuff you wouldn't normally find at the nearest Brook Mays.

Just across his yard is The Echo Lab, the recording studio owned and operated by Matt Pence (Cripps' frequent racquetball partner), Dave Willingham and Matt Barnhart, and behind the house is a few hundred acres of fertile floodplain, the kind of pristine country you only find in travel magazines and picture postcards. Other than a few houses on the property, there's nothing much else around, just tree-lined gravel roads and snapshot-quality views. It's a nice setup, the former Brave Combo percussionist says, sipping his Maker's, close enough to the comforts of Dallas and Denton yet far enough away to ignore them.

At the moment, though, he's most interested in the short stack of CD-Rs on the cluttered table in front of him, nondescript and barely labeled. The discs contain rough mixes of the forthcoming album from 74-year-old Delta blues great CeDell Davis, culled from recording sessions in November and January, the latter featuring a backup band including R.E.M. guitarist Peter Buck. The record, produced by Cripps, is set to hit shelves August 20, and it's the result of three years of trips he's made to Davis' Pine Bluff, Arkansas, home, convincing Davis to let him record his songs, scaring up gigs for him, whatever Davis wanted and whatever it took. (See "Pine Bluffing" below.) To him, the release date looks like the tape across the finish line at the end of a marathon.

But that's not the only reason Cripps is excited about the album, although it's probably more than enough. When Davis' record finally makes its way into record stores, it will bear the logo of Fast Horse Recordings, the label Cripps has started with Barrett Martin, erstwhile drummer for the Screaming Trees, among many other groups he's lent his percussion skills. (Like Cripps, maybe even more so, Martin collects instruments from around the world--Brazilian atabaque, Cuban bata, Garibuna and Ghanian drums, Gamelan instruments and so on.) Working with Davis allowed Cripps to bring to life an album that only existed in his head, afforded him the opportunity to help people discover an overlooked legend who was beginning to feel like his little secret. But his partnership with Martin and Fast Horse gives Cripps a chance to have a much bigger impact.

Not that Martin and Cripps intend for Fast Horse to become another independent label that looks and sounds like an under-funded version of the Big Five. Rather, they take their cues from Luaka Bop (former Talking Heads head David Byrne's vanity imprint) and Stax/Volt, which was as much a family as it was a label; Cripps, in fact, has occasionally called Al Bell, Stax's former chairman of the board, for advice. Fast Horse Recordings is, or soon will be, an eclectic home--emphasis on both words--for musicians, among them Tuatara and Wayward Shamans (whose records, Cinemathique and Alchemy, respectively, both including Cripps and Martin, just came out), as well as Davis and Brazilian singer Mylene Nunes. And that's just the beginning.

"We both had a lot of other stuff going on, both together and apart," Cripps says. "And we needed a place to do them, needed a place to put them out. We've come from very different places; I've been indie all the way along, and he's been major-label guy. And he got really sick of the major-label thing, of being kind of held hostage: 'Yeah, you can make another record.' Or, 'No, you can't.' Or, 'You made another one, but we're not putting it out,' or whatever."

"We just kind of started talking, like, you know, the kind of music that we're doing here with the Shamans--and also, I had the Tuatara record ready to go, and we weren't really finding anybody that was interested in that--and I just kind of said, 'You know, we ought to just start our own label, just put this stuff out and then just see where it goes from there,'" Martin says on the phone from his home in Taos, New Mexico, where he recently relocated after living in Seattle most of his adult life. "Didn't really have a long-term plan; I just wanted to get the records out, you know? I just thought, 'Man, this is what everybody's doing.'

 

"There's really a revolution going on in the music business, just because of the ineptitude and greediness of the major labels," he continues. "Everybody that's got a brain is just starting their own label and doing it on their own. In fact, a lot of people that I know that were smart people that knew about music left their major-label positions to start their own labels. I mean, the best and brightest have already kind of left. What's left is just a shell of this collapsing infrastructure."

While Fast Horse hasn't been around long, the label already is taking advantage of that collapsing infrastructure. Tuatara, whose first two albums (1997's Breaking the Ethers and 1998's Trading With the Enemy) came out on Sony and Epic, sold about 8,000 copies of Cinemathique before it was officially released, as fans pre-ordered the disc through various Web sites. It's well on its way to the kind of sales figures the band posted on its previous efforts--Breaking the Ethers, for example, sold about 50,000--which wouldn't impress Sony, but as Cripps says, "If we sold that many, we'd be thrilled." He expected, at most, 4,000 pre-orders of Cinemathique, and that was being optimistic.

Of course, it all comes at a price, all too literally: "Borrowing from family, and going, you know, 'We'll get a check in 70 days or something, and we'll pay you back first thing,'" Cripps says, referring to the expense of getting a label off the ground. "Both of us have tapped ourselves out and are going to family members and stuff now. And it seems like $12,000 just for the first manufacturing bill. And then we had to order more...It's been educational. It's been very frustrating at times. It's been really rewarding at times. I mean, you get some little piece of news, 'They ordered this many!' You're elated for five minutes of 'Wow! Yeah!' And then, 'How do we do this? How do we fulfill this order? We don't have any money.' And then you get stressed."

That said, Cripps and Martin are so pleased with where the label is--and where it's going--they don't mind the extra bills and the short-term loans. Part of the process, they say, and since it's going better than expected, there's no point complaining. Much of the early success of Fast Horse is thanks to its distribution deal with Rykodisc, a Massachusetts-based label and distributor that recently won another award from the National Association of Recording Merchandisers (NARM) for distributor of the year, an honor it's taken home for the last several years. Rykodisc's aggressive marketing push has landed Cinemathique in listening posts in Tower Records and Virgin Megastore locations all over the country, not to mention the huge banners and prominent displays in other chains (Borders and Barnes & Noble, for instance) and airplay on NPR's popular All Things Considered, perhaps the best audience for a record just this side of esoteric, slinky jazz and washed-ashore worldbeat providing the soundtrack for a nonexistent film.

"They've done a lot of stuff that Sony couldn't even begin to do," Martin says. "And never tried to do for us, for that matter. I'm really happy. I mean, signing with them was definitely the best thing we could have done. All of us have a lot of Rykodisc CDs in our collection, just because they do everything from the Library of Congress field recordings stuff to, you know, they reissued the Bowie catalog. Anything that's good music, whether it's world music or just great rock and roll or experimental stuff...And also, they do Hannibal, which is all the West African stuff. I mean, they really understand a lot of the same music that Joe and I have been playing, or that we're interested in. And they know how to market it. They've just really got it figured out."

Still, for all Rykodisc has done for Fast Horse, it's up to Cripps and Martin to determine whether the label makes a difference, or just makes room for itself at a table filled with failed dreamers. (There are a few seats near the Beastie Boys, whose Grand Royal label went teats up not long ago.) Business-wise, Fast Horse makes sense, as well as dollars and cents, for musicians: Bands pay productions costs, the label funds the manufacturing and all profits are split down the middle. (Try floating that royalty rate past the suits at Universal or Sony.) Creatively, Fast Horse is almost a collective, an extended family of musicians who can bring whatever projects they're involved in to the label. Cripps and Martin perform on Fast Horse's first three records (Wayward Shamans is actually a band they started together), but their participation isn't necessary to an album's inclusion on the label's release schedule. For example, Alex Veley, who mans the keys for Wayward Shamans, has a solo record that Fast Horse will likely put out, and Cripps and Martin were minimally involved in its recording. "That's the idea, all these groups of people and people outside of that, who maybe, for whatever reason it works, we can put them out," Cripps says.

 

"It's one of the things where when you start to build it and you see the potential of what it could be and then people recognize it as well," Martin says. "It's kind of a simultaneous thing. You're building it, and we started it to put out our records, but our records were just an example to other people. 'Look, we have enough confidence in this endeavor that we'll put out our own records on it, and if you want us to put your records out, you know we're interested in that, too.' Suddenly, we had four or five records that we could put out, and there's about four or five more for next year at least. I expect there'll be more than that by the time we get around to it. It really has just kind of taken on a life of its own."

Peter Buck, who formed Tuatara with Martin in 1996 (with Luna's Justin Harwood and Skerik of Critters Buggin'), is helping Fast Horse take on its own life, recently assuming a role as Fast Horse's A&R scout, bringing projects to Martin and Cripps, including his own. It was obvious he was headed in that direction when he was in Denton for the weeklong recording session for Davis' album. With little prompting, Buck expressed both his excitement for what Cripps and Martin were starting and his disgust with the way Warner Bros. had mishandled R.E.M.'s latest album, last year's Reveal. He talked about how he'd go to Europe and spend every moment offstage doing interviews and visiting radio stations, but when he'd come home to tour the States, Warner Bros. hadn't bothered to set anything up for him or the band, like the label didn't even care. It probably didn't. R.E.M. had become a line item on a budget, not a band. A week or so ago, Buck turned that distaste for major-label politics, and his enthusiasm for Cripps and Martin's new enterprise, into a partnership, a way to subvert the system of which he remains a part.

Buck only joined the team a week or so ago, but his relationship with Fast Horse stretches all the way back to Martin and Cripps' initial meeting, in Cuba in 1999. The three of them--along with musicians such as Burt Bacharach, Bonnie Raitt, the Indigo Girls, Don Was, Jimmy Buffett, Joan Osborne and Lisa Loeb, as well as, for some reason, Woody Harrelson--were sent to Cuba as part of a cultural-exchange program called Music Bridges Around the World. The idea was, U.S. artists would go to Cuba for a week, write songs with Cuban musicians and then perform the results at a concert at the Karl Marx Theater in Havana.

Sounded good in theory, but not so much in actual practice. Martin ended up stuck in a hotel room with Peter Frampton and an older husband-and-wife team from Cuba who yelled at him for not playing his conga drum correctly. Buck was joined by former Eagle J.D. Souther and a Cuban musician who spoke no English and kept losing his lyrics. Cripps fared the best, lucking into a group where one of the Cuban musicians was in a band with a nice rehearsal space, its own P.A. and a big percussion setup. "Not only that, I knew who the band was; I had some of their records," Cripps remembers. Soon enough, he'd hijacked Martin, and the duo spent their time taking drum lessons from some of the locals and exploring the countryside with Buck and Police guitarist Andy Summers. Before they went home, Martin and Cripps (who was on the verge of leaving Brave Combo) decided they had to work together. And soon.

"Immediately, down there even, we started talking about, 'When we get back to the States, let's get together, let's record something, let's do some stuff," Cripps says. "Sure enough, I got back to Texas and within about five days the phone rang and it was Barrett, and he was like, 'Hey, I want you to come up and do this thing.'" Martin flew Cripps to Seattle where he was working on a solo album that later turned into Alchemy, the Wayward Shamans' debut. "We started working on that, and as we were doing it, the idea was slowly kind of formulating about what if we started a group."

 

"We definitely connected right away," Martin says. "We were into a lot of the same music. It's kind of a nonverbal thing; you just know if you can or cannot play with somebody. And Joe and I immediately gelled."

Those first sessions led to Cripps coming back to Seattle to play on the Tuatara record Martin was finishing up, which led, after many long conversations, to Fast Horse. The label's just getting on its feet--Martin has an office in Taos and has assembled a small staff, and Cripps is in the process of doing the same in Texas--but they already have a couple of years' worth of releases in the works. Besides for the CeDell Davis and Mylene Nunes albums, Martin is putting together a Tuatara remix album--featuring mixes by Spearhead's Michael Franti, DJ Spooky, DJ Wally and others--which should be out later this year. ("This particular album's gonna be more just, like, you know, paperwork more than recording, as far as my production work goes," Martin says.) Beyond that, Buck has a trio of bands and ideas in the planning stages, and Martin and Cripps both talk about another Wayward Shamans disc. And that's just the top of the list.

In July and August, Tuatara, Wayward Shamans and Davis, along with The Minus 5 (Buck's rock band with Scott McCaughey, who plays on the Tuatara and Davis albums) will hit the road for a cross-country tour. "There's about a dozen musicians, and we're all playing together in each other's bands, so it's going to be a continuous night of music," Martin explains. "There's no stopping between sets; we just segue from one thing into another. Some people will walk onstage. Some will walk offstage. Some people will just change instruments and become somebody else. It's going to be a lot of fun."

Draining his glass of Maker's, Cripps says he considers himself lucky, that he's backed himself into all of this simply by listening to what's in his heart and head. You only wish more record labels were built on that principle.

"I try to, I don't always live by this rule as much as I should, but just really follow the passion," Cripps says. "CeDell has been a passion in my life. Doing this stuff with Barrett has been a passion in my life. And they collided at some point. But I never could have planned that. Never could've said, 'Hey, here's an idea. I think I'll try to make this happen.' Man, if you just follow what you believe is good, it'll work out; you'll at least get by. You know, if you can at least pay your electric bill. I don't need to be rich. You can play with CeDell Davis, go out of your way to take advantage of being able to do that, go put out a little effort to go to Seattle and do something you don't know what's going to come of it. Then two years later, something like that happens and you just go, 'Man, this is worth the price of admission right here. Life is an E-ticket ride, if you just do it right.'"


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